“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.” Words from our 2nd reading today from the 3rd chapter of James – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
Consider for a moment, the simple question: “what do you want?” We hear that question asked of us over and over and seemingly in every context. What do you want to study in college? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do in retirement? What do you want for your birthday? What do you want for Christmas? What do you want for dinner? What options do you want in your new car, your new computer? How do you want to decorate your office desk, your backyard, or your living room? What do you want to wear today or what do you want to wear to this upcoming occasion? … or even, if you know that scene from the Jungle Book with the Vultures that very much resemble the Beatles: “What do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do? Look flaps, I ask you what you want to do, you ask me what you want to do, then I say what do you want to do, what are we going to do, let’s just do something… OK, so … what do you want to do?” [Face-palm] Our culture and society is pretty good at reinforcing this sentiment: it’s all about you, the individual, and what each person wants for himself or herself. “Have it your way,” Burger King declares. I think the band, Neovaii, gives a pretty accurate depiction of society in their song Chase Pop, when they say we are busy “chasing our own reflection.”
But in a busy world, some of us don’t need to be doing yet more things. Some of us don’t know what we want to be when we grow up and are confused with the immense pressure put on us. Some of the things that we want aren’t good for us – I’m sorry but I can’t eat 3 pounds of chocolate every night for dinner. Some of us can’t afford to just renovate the house so that it’s just the way we want it. It’s almost as if we are setting ourselves up for failure when we ask ourselves what we want all the time, only to discover that we can’t get it or it’s not for us. And that’s when jealousy and envy set in. We tell ourselves, “I’ll be OK when I become successful like him. I’ll be OK when I look as good as she does. I’ll be OK when I have what they do.” And every time we make a comparison to a life we think we’d like to have, we put a condition on our own self-worth: I’ll be OK when…
In the Gospel today, Jesus sets these personal ambitions and comparisons aside, and he embraces that little child that resides in each and every human being. With this gesture, he does more than just give us his attention. God demonstrates to us that we’re all accepted and loved, now, for who we are: beloved sons and daughters, precious in his eyes, and that we shouldn’t therefore diminish our self-worth. God opens our eyes to the absurdity of our disagreements, ambitions, and the torments that unsettle our communities and families. As St. James writes, where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. Indeed, our unhealthy attachment to ourselves and our individualism is a cancer that takes away our peace. It is what caused those wicked people in our first reading to despise and persecute the righteous. It is that excessive individualism that caused turmoil and conflict within the Christian community that St. James was writing to in our second reading. It was that unhealthy attachment to self, that led the disciples in the Gospel to argue over who was the greatest among them. And it is the same with us today, when we obsess about ourselves, even in the innocent question of what each of us wants.
Our readings today tell us that it needs to be less about us and more about each other. Our readings generate a reversal of values and redirect our desires to the good of others. That is what love, true love, Christian love is all about. Even selfish and unloving persons recognize in the book of Wisdom that God will uphold those who act uprightly in this way. If we are to have peace, we would act justly and wisely, being pure, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity in our relations with each other as St. James tells us. If one is to be great, truly great, Jesus tells us that they would become the servant of others, looking out for them and putting their needs first. Think about this: Name for yourself the five wealthiest people in the world; Name the last five Heisman trophy winners; Name the last five winners of the Miss America pageant; Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize; Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress; Name the last decade’s worth of World Series winners. These are good trivia questions that get you thinking a little bit… Indeed, these are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners. By the same token: Now list for yourself a few teachers who aided your journey through school; Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time; Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile; Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special; Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. A little easier, I imagine. The lesson: The people who are great and make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They simply are the ones who care the most about others. Do you want to be great – then put others first. I find it ironic that I hear the question, ‘what do you want?’ almost every day, but it’s been some time since I heard anyone mention that anything was worth doing because they wanted to serve the common good, or that I only want what’s best for you. It’s a struggle to be sure, but Jesus is trying to make us realize that just as he gave himself up in love for the salvation of the world, so also by losing our selves in service to others do we gain all things in Christ who alone indeed fulfills every desire and the deepest longing of our hearts.