25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Sisters and brothers, do you still remember that Steven Spielberg movie from 2002, entitled Catch Me If You Can? Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks? It’s based on the life of a career criminal by the name of Frank Abagnale, Jr.. Whose life of crime begins when Frank is only a teenager. The movie portrays Frank as someone having a desperate need to be somebody. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself. Except that Frank’s way of becoming somebody is simply to impersonate that person. He begins by passing himself off as an airline pilot. And with great success. To support himself, he forges payroll cheques. Managing to steal millions of dollars in the process.
Later, Frank proceeds to take on the identities of a doctor and then a lawyer. But the sad thing about all this is that, even though his disguises keep changing, Frank’s deeper identity doesn’t. At root, he always remains the same person. A young lonely con-artist. Forging cheques for a living. And continually on the run from the law. It’s only after he’s arrested and imprisoned that Frank’s life takes a turn for the better. Recognising the value of his expertise, the FBI strikes a deal with him. Allowing him to serve out the rest of his prison sentence as an adviser. Helping the FBI to catch other fraudsters like himself. So that it’s only after being caught that Frank’s deeper identity truly begins to change. The cheque forger becomes a consultant. The criminal, a crime fighter. The nobody, a somebody.
I’m reminded of this movie today because, in our Mass readings, we also find people desperately looking to be somebodies. People jealously defending the identities that they have painstakingly built up for themselves. In the first reading, a group of people, described as godless, feel that their way of life is being threatened. They react by defending themselves with violence. Even with murder. All of which serves only to uncover for us their true identity. Whatever they may think of themselves. Whoever they may want to be. These people are really nothing more than bullies. Intimidating and victimising others to get their own way. To push their own agenda. To inflate and to protect their own fragile egos.
The second reading helps us to trace these violent and oppressive tendencies to their roots in the human heart. Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? The reading asks. Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? In the anxious need we each have to be somebody? And to defend our carefully cultivated identities at all costs? Even if it means causing harm to others. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. The tragedy of it all is, of course, that, unknown to themselves, those who do this never really succeed in changing their identities. Just as the criminal, Frank Abagnale, never really succeeded in changing his. Sure, the disguises may change. But, at root, the identity remains the same. Always jealous and ambitious. Interiorly torn and divided. Constantly anxious and insecure.
Nor is this condition restricted only to those who are obviously sinful. Or materialistic. Or secular. It can afflict even those of us who may appear outwardly spiritual and religious. People who say their prayers. Who come to church. Who serve in ministries. Who even preside and preach at Masses. People like myself, for example. Isn’t this what the gospel is helping us to recognise?
The reading begins by telling us that Jesus and his disciples are making their way through Galilee. They are on a journey together. And, on the way, Jesus tells them, for the second time, that he will soon be captured, killed, and then raised from the dead. But notice the disciples’ reaction. They don’t understand what they hear. And they demonstrate their lack of understanding by arguing among themselves. Discussing which of them was the greatest. Their Master and friend has just shared with them the terrible news of his impending doom. And all they can think about is getting ahead! Becoming somebody! Quite clearly, even though they may appear to be travelling on the same road as Jesus, the disciples are really moving in the opposite direction. Their Master is on his way to lay down his life for his friends. But, like the people in the first two readings, the disciples’ only concern is to inflate their egos at others’ expense.
Still, we shouldn’t be too quick to point fingers at them for being like that, should we? For, two thousand years down the road, society hasn’t changed all that much, has it? At least not in this respect. Today, we still find ourselves jealous and ambitious. Torn and divided. Anxious and insecure. Struggling to be somebodies. Fighting to get ahead. No matter the costs. Why else are there so many refugees, forced to flee their homelands? Enduring terrible danger, just to find a safer place to live? Why else do our offices and our homes, perhaps even our parishes, sometimes feel as though they too were war zones? Populated by people fighting to get ahead? Struggling to be somebodies. At the expense of everybody. And why else does a single national examination, taken by a bunch of 12-year olds, have the power to strike such fear in the hearts of grown men and women? Fear that can often be highly contagious. Spreading from adults to children. And back again. And sometimes even to unsuspecting priests like me.
And yet, however hard we try to be somebody, how many of us actually succeed in finding true contentment? Instead, don’t many of us find ourselves constantly having to change from one disguise to another? Expending much energy, undergoing incredible stress, just to keep up appearances? But, at root, always remaining very much the same. Jealous and ambitious. Torn and divided. Anxious and insecure. Sisters and brothers, is there a way out?
Well, the good news is that there is. The way out is found in the wisdom that Jesus offers us in the gospel. Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Scholars tell us that what the Lord is highlighting is not so much the child’s innocence. As her lack of social standing. Especially in the society of Jesus’ day, the child is essentially a nobody. And it is only in embracing the life of a nobody. In being willing to become last of all and servant of all. That one actually manages to finally become somebody. Isn’t this what we see in Jesus’ own life? Isn’t this what we celebrate at this and at every Mass? That the way to fullness of life necessarily passes through the valley of self-emptying love and compassion. And isn’t this fundamental truth something that our world continues to need so desperately to learn? Something that we, who profess to be Christian, have the responsibility to impart? But only after having first learned it ourselves?
Sisters and brothers, in the movie Catch Me If You Can, it is only after he is caught and imprisoned, when all his disguises have fallen from his face, that Frank Abagnale finally succeeds in truly becoming somebody. How is our Crucified and Risen Lord inviting us, you and me, to allow ourselves to be captured by him? To surrender our disguises to him? To become nobodies. So that he can teach us to truly become somebodies in the Kingdom of His love and mercy today?