Lynne Smith’s Homily from September 30, 2018

Lynne Smith, OSB Homilies Leave a Comment

Mark 9:38-48                                                                Lynne Smith, OSB

This exchange between Jesus and the disciples follows the Transfiguration and a series of teaching conversations between Jesus and the disciples. At the Transfiguration, three of the disciples catch a vision of who Jesus is in his glory. Apparently, this sets them to think about having some of that glory for themselves. Jesus calls them back to earth with the prediction of his passion. His glory is not what they think. Down the mountain, another group of disciples has been unable to cast out a demon. Jesus tells them that kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. The implication may be that the disciples were trying to cast the demon out by their own power rather than relying on the power of God. Jesus tells them again of his coming passion. The disciples continue to be obsessed with power and glory and get into an argument about who is the greatest among them. Jesus tells them the one who welcomes a child, one of the least, is his follower.

The disciples don’t want to hear about the least, they want to be the greatest. John pipes up, “…we tried to stop the exorcist who was using your name because he wasn’t following us.” This must have been the last straw for Jesus.  He uses the starkest imagery he can find to drive his point home. If the disciples’ egocentric grasping for power and greatness causes others to lose their faith, the disciples are in danger of being cast to the bottom of the sea with a millstone around their neck. This silences the disciples.

I have to admit, I’ve never much liked this reading, probably because I find myself with the disciples. I still have so much ego invested in what I do and how others see me. In all sorts of ways, conscious and unconscious, I, too, would like to be great.

Seeking power and greatness seem practically hard-wired into our human nature. They are certainly embedded in this country’s culture. We all want to “be somebody” in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. We constantly compare ourselves to others to see where we are on the greatness scale. No one is eager to be the least unless it makes us look better in other’s eyes. No one really wants to move in the direction of diminishment. We would much rather move toward success, achievement, wealth and power.

Jesus is clearly calling his disciples in a different direction. We can see here how hard it is even to entertain his message, let alone follow it.

The stark language Jesus uses makes the message undeniable. Jesus wants us to do whatever we need to in order to “enter life.” That life is union with God. Anything that separates us from God and might cause another to falter in faith is to be taken very seriously. Pursuing greatness, putting ourselves at the center of our lives, separates us from God and others, particularly from the least. To rein in or cut off our ego’s focus on becoming great and to see others through a lens of community and service rather than competition is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. It is a lifetime’s work.

Ironically, even this spiritual work can become another self-improvement project of the ego. Trying to become least by “working on myself” or “trying harder” only ends in pride, frustration or despair. Truly, this kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer.

In prayer and meditating on Scripture, we encounter God’s fierce love for us. I think it is this fierce love of God that is the fire with which Jesus says we have been salted. Both salt and fire purify what they interact with. Salt was also used to seal covenants. This purifying, covenantal salty fire is the fierce love of God that doesn’t want us to go to the bottom of the sea with a millstone around our necks. The fierce, covenantal love of God keeps confronting us, as Jesus did the disciples, through prayer, through Scripture, through the people and events of our lives calling us to our true greatness as those who have received God’s love.

In the presence of God’s enduring, purifying love for us, we can dare to stay with our feeling of being little and weak or our anger that someone else may be greater than we are. If we can stay with our emptiness, the presence of God’s love will show us our greatness as sons and daughters of God.

Community helps in the purification process too. Those who love us let us know when our strategies for greatness get in the way of our relationships. In love and sometimes in words as stark as Jesus’s, they call us back to our True selves.

Our true greatness lies in being ourselves in God. God’s covenant love keeps reminding us who we are: beloved children of God gifted because we are so greatly loved before doing anything to be great.

Welcoming God’s fierce love into the hole we try to fill with visions of greatness can allow the parts of ourselves that desperately need to know we are loved and accepted to relax. Our natural greatness can emerge as a gift. It is the salty fire of God’s love that purifies us to follow Jesus in service to others.

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