29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32:4-5,18-20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of the famous invisible gorilla experiment? Some years ago, two psychologists from Harvard University conducted an experiment. They gathered a group of people, and made them watch a video clip. The video showed six people moving around passing basketballs to one another. Three of the people wore white tops. And the other three black. The test subjects were asked to count the number of times the basketballs were passed between the people in white. After watching the video, they each gave their answer. But the psychologists then went on to ask them a further question. Did you see the gorilla? To which only half said they did. The other half didn’t know what the psychologists were talking about. So they played the video again. And, true enough, in the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks to the centre of the screen, thumps his chest, and then walks out again. Yet, half of the test subjects were so focused on the passing of the balls that they failed to notice the gorilla.
It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in the gospel today? To recognise the similarity we need to first situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. For some time now, Jesus and his disciples have been on a journey. Moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along the way, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and his healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem.
In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after the Lord’s third prediction of his own Passion, Death and Resurrection. Jesus tells his closest companions that the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again (10:33f.). And, in the gospel proclaimed just now, we heard the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, for the third time no less, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond by asking him to let them sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. Not only that, we are also told that the other ten began to feel indignant with James and John. They are upset not because of the insensitivity. But because the brothers were trying to get ahead at their expense.
In other words, even though, all along their journey to Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations with the Lord, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the people who missed the gorilla. Even though it walked by, right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in something else. They were concentrating on the popularity that Jesus was enjoying in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already being received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was still to come. Obsessed with their dream of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own ambitions for glory, they missed the opportunity to do what friends might do in such situations. If not to help, then at least to try to empathise with the one who is suffering.
It’s not surprising then that when the Lord’s predictions eventually come to pass. When he is finally arrested in Gethsemane. The gospel tells us that they all deserted him and ran away (14:50). They ran because they hadn’t heard what Jesus had been trying to tell them. Focused as they were only on the passing on to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Passion and Death on the Cross.
And perhaps this insensitivity of the first disciples is something we may find in ourselves as well. We too are often so focused on our own pressing concerns that we have no time to think of anything else. According to a report on the front page of today’s Straits Times, for example, the number of women in Singapore who remain childless is almost three times what it was twenty years ago. And one reason for the jump is that many are too focused on establishing their careers to start a family.
Sisters and brothers, without meaning to judge anyone, we cannot deny that our obsession with our own comfort and wellbeing, often blinds us to the needs and sufferings of others. Those who may live in our own country. Who occupy the same pews in church. Who eat at the same table. Who even sleep on the same bed. We fail to notice the suffering of those closest to us. What more those who are far away. Like the first disciples in the gospel, we concentrate so much on the ball of comfort and glory, that we fail to notice the gorilla of suffering.
And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment. A difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real connection to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate relationship between ball and gorilla. Glory and suffering.
In the first reading we’re told that it is by undergoing affliction for the sake of his people, that the Suffering Servant comes to see the light and be content. And the second reading reminds us that Christ has gone through the highest heaven. But only by sharing in our sufferings. By being tempted in every way that we are. And just as the Lord’s passing into glory depends on his endurance of suffering. So too does his passing on of glory to us also depend upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. As Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. The message is clear. For us Christians, the way to glory passes through the service of others. Especially those who suffer. One must face the gorilla to get to the ball.
And truly there are many among us who suffer. And in so many different ways. There are those who suffer because they do not have enough to live on. And then there are also many others who suffer because they do not have enough to live for. It is to such as these that we are sent. Just as Christ was sent among us. To love and to serve the suffering. To be Christ to them. Sharing with them the Way to Life. This is who we are as Christians. This is our mission.
I’m reminded of these words from an old song popularised in the nineteen sixties by the rock group Jefferson Airplane: When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough. Particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus only on our own worries and ambitions. Our own comfort and wellbeing. We need to find somebody to love…
Sisters and brothers, even as we continue to juggle the balls of our various activities and aspirations in life. How can we keep from ignoring the gorilla of suffering walking among us? Today, what must we do to keep finding somebody to love?