Sunday, September 23, 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Beware the Rip Currents!

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Psalm 53:3-6,8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Sisters and brothers, do you like the beach? It can be very relaxing to sit by the sea, on a cool breezy day, and watch the waves breaking on the sand. Or even to take a dip in the saltwater, and let yourself be carried along by it. But, although beaches can be relaxing, you do have to be careful too. Depending on where you are, a beach can also be very dangerous. Some foreign beaches, for example, are notorious for rip currents. You know, of course, what a rip current is. Although most of the seawater at a beach moves inwards, towards the safety of the shore, a rip current moves in the opposite direction. Away from the beach. Once caught in such a current, an unsuspecting swimmer can very easily be dragged out into deep water and drown.

What makes rip currents so dangerous is the fact that they’re not easy to spot. Not unless you know what to look out for. You may see only the cool inviting waters glistening in the sun, and you immediately dash in, thinking that all the waves are moving in the same direction. That they will all carry you back to the safety of the shore. But, once in the water, before you know what’s happening, you find yourself being swept away to your destruction. Hence the importance of having warning signs on the beach. Or trained lifeguards. Something or someone to help bring the hidden danger out into the open. To point out the rip currents, so that people can take the necessary precautions, and avoid being buried in a watery grave.

There is, of course, no mention of the beach in our Mass readings today. Let alone rip currents. But, if we look closely, we will find an important warning. Today, a hidden danger is being brought to our attention. Consider what is happening in the gospel. Jesus and his disciples are on a journey. And we know the direction in which they are travelling. Jesus makes no secret about it. Today, for the second time in Mark’s gospel, the Lord tells his disciples about his destination. The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, he says. They will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again. Jesus is travelling toward the Cross. But, even though he will soon have to suffer and die, he is moving also in the direction of the Resurrection. The direction of spiritual safety. He is actually leading his disciples onto the shores of new life in the Kingdom of God. He is teaching them what love looks like. He is showing them that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

But not all the waves in the gospel are moving in that same direction. There is also a rip current going the other way. Moving in a direction, not of safety and life, but of danger and death. And this current is made all the more dangerous because it is hidden. At least at first. Initially, the disciples appear to be travelling in the same direction as Jesus. Geographically, they are moving along with him from the mountain of Transfiguration, through Galilee, to Capernaum. But, spiritually, they are actually going in the opposite direction. For we’re told that, along the way, the disciples have been arguing which of them was the greatest. Jesus, their Lord and Master, is steadily moving in the direction of loving self-sacrifice. They, in contrast, remain focused on anxious self-advancement.

And the second reading tells us exactly where these two different roads lead. We’re told that, on the one hand, the wisdom that comes down from above makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate. But, on the other hand, wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done. The wisdom that comes down from heaven is, of course, none other than Jesus himself. His way, the way of the Cross, the way of self-sacrificing love, leads to harmony and peace. In contrast, the way of the disciples, the way of ambition, and of concern for self-advancement, leads instead to violence and conflict. As the second reading points out: You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. This then is the dangerous rip current in which the disciples find themselves caught.

And this current is all the more dangerous for being hidden. The disciples think that they are following Jesus on the road. But they are actually being pulled in the opposite direction. And we see something similar in the first reading too. Here godless people are ruthlessly planning to torture and murder a just person. But they don’t seem to realise that their plans are evil. On the contrary, they use God to justify their actions. If the virtuous man is God’s son, they say, God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies. Even though the godless are being swept away by the rip current of their own evil ambition and selfishness. Even though they are moving in the direction of violence and conflict, of danger and death. They remain blind to their situation. They even fool themselves into thinking that what they do is what God wants.

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we will recognise that what is said of the godless could also be said of us as well. For isn’t it true that we too are capable of fighting to further our own ambitions, even while we may claim to be working for the best interests of others? Isn’t it all too easy, for example, for parents to tell themselves that they’re pushing their children, often to the point of exhaustion, only for the children’s own good? When, in fact, the parents are anxious for their children to succeed, also because failure will make the parents lose face in front of their friends? Isn’t it true too, that it is all too easy for a priest and religious like me to tell myself that I’m working myself to the point of burnout all for the sake of building God’s kingdom, when it is actually my own career I’m carefully constructing? My own ego I’m steadily inflating? Sisters and brothers, like rip currents, ambition and the desire for self-advancement are made all the more dangerous because they can so easily be hidden among apparently noble intentions.

Thankfully, like a well-placed sign on a beach, or an alert and conscientious lifeguard, Jesus knows just what to do to bring the hidden danger to light. In the gospel, he does this by asking the disciples a crucially important question: What were you arguing about on the road? What are the things that are occupying your mind and heart? The concerns that sap your energy? The issues that upset you? Make you anxious? Rob you of your peace of mind? Are your concerns truly related to the interests of God and of others? Or do they revolve mainly around you and yours? Are you truly focused on self-donation, on self-sacrifice? Or is there not more than a little desire for self-advancement? Are you being carried into the safety and peace of God’s Kingdom? Or are you instead allowing yourself to be swept away into the deadly depths of violence and conflict? Difficult questions. But important for bringing the hidden danger out into the open. What's more, to help the disciples to answer more honestly, to help them face the truth, Jesus sets a child before them. The better to prompt them to examine themselves: How willing am I to welcome someone like this child? Someone without any standing in society. Someone powerless. Someone who possesses nothing that can benefit me. How willing am I to care for such a person?

And what about us, sisters and brothers? On the road of life, what do we constantly argue about? This is the question that Jesus is posing to us as well. And he does this not to put us on a guilt trip. Not to make us feel bad. But to save us from drowning in the treacherous waters of our own anxious ambition.

Sisters and brothers, are there any dangerous rip currents you need to beware of today?

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