I’ve recently been meeting with college business students, and this is what they are saying: “I want to write my own ticket. High Tech is a wide-open field.” “I am helping to create public relations programs for companies that are on the leading edge of software development. What I am learning is making one fabulous career.” “I want to hit the beach: I grew up on the West Coast, and the ocean has always been my second home. Whenever I need to think things through, this is where I come.” “I want to keep climbing. Each year, my role gets bigger.” “My managers support my growth with professional development and mentoring programs. It is like being in college.” “I want to go to Africa next year. I want to be my best. If there is a limit to what I am capable of achieving, I am not sure where it is, or when I will reach it. Never, I hope.”
In what I have just read, we hear of college, learning, growth, travel, climbing, and self-discovery; it is all there, and all good things, and it is punctuated with the little word “I”, which appears in that short paragraph fourteen times. It seems the current ethics put “me” first, with no hint of giving to or serving others.
This is the James and John syndrome we read about in the Gospel. They wanted privileged positions and power without service, and Jesus simply reminded them that, paradoxically, you gain these things by renunciation. When they witnessed the ultimate renunciation, with Jesus stretched out on the Cross, did they want to still be on His left and right?
In the Gospel, we see the disciples vie one another for positions of importance in the kingdom. In the previous chapter, Jesus has just told them that He is going to Jerusalem where He would suffer and die. This is the third time that He has told them that He Is going to be put to death, he says, “They are going to kill Me.” The disciples are unbelieving or too busy to understand His words, almost as if they have not heard His words. James and John ask for greatness and glory, and there is immediate resentment among the other disciples. Jesus tells them if they wish to be first, they must serve the needs of all. He tells them to open their eyes and see that they are brothers, not rivals.
The apostles remind me of the man who leaves a party very drunk. He staggers along a street and bumps into a telephone pole, and falls to the ground, He keeps getting up and hitting the same pole. Finally, he sits on the ground and with great resignation says to himself, what can I do? I am all fenced in.
Many times we, like the disciples, could say we are all fenced in: fenced in by our need for recognition, or fenced in by competition. Fenced in by the world where I have to watch out for myself. Fenced in by the attitude that, if I do not assert myself, no one will. Fenced in by my needs, ambitions, addictions. Sometimes we can become so caught up in fulfilling our own needs that we forget those around us; just as the disciples were so preoccupied by their wants and ambitions that they paid no attention to what Jesus was telling them about His death.
The night before He died, He showed them how to act when he began washing their feet. This was the work of a slave. After which, He said to them, now you do likewise, you serve one another. And it must have worked, the message got through. It was during the early church when people would exclaim, do you see how these Christians love one another?
I have a story for you. An officer during World War I went to a soldier’s bed in the hospital. The soldier had disobeyed orders, and returned to the field of battle when he found out that his best friend had been wounded and left behind. The soldier returned, severely wounded. The young man told the officer, I found my friend. He died in my arms, and the last thing he said was, I knew you would come.
Isn’t this a picture of what is best in human life? Isn’t this what each of us is called to, one wounded person helping another? This is what the followers of Jesus should be doing. His wounds have healed us; our wounds can heal others. Husband, wife, brother, sister, friends and relatives, priest and parishioner, as Christ would say to us, you are not fenced in. Open your eyes. Do not struggle for power over one another. Do not use each other. Let your leadership be found only in this, in serving. Then, once again, people will say, see how these Christians love one another!