Greetings, SBT Readers!
As of today, September 18th, 2021, there have been 41,955,784 cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and 672,811 deaths -- fatalities that exceed the entire population of my island home, Malta (442,961). According to National Geographic, one in 500 Americans has now died of this virus -- and still there are "nay-sayers," anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who refuse to cooperate with government efforts to curb the disease, even going as far as to undermine mask mandates and vaccination requirements. Meanwhile, hospitals are filled to capacity, healthcare workers are burned out, and businesses cannot go back to normal because of a lack of qualified workers and shortages in the supply chain.
What will it take to defeat this modern plague? As long as we cling to a "me first" mentality, the pandemic will continue to spread, with even more lethal variants appearing. The challenge for each of us is to make all decisions in light of the common good, and to be aware that our actions can have consequences for others. Something as simple as how we wear a mask can make a difference. Now that I'm back in the classroom, I am quick to tell my students to cover their noses and not just their mouths; sometimes, there is some eye rolling but most of my students comply when I remind them. They know -- as I know-- that all it will take is one sick student for classes to go back on Zoom again.
One in 500 Americans-- that is an extraordinarily high number of casualties. Each person who has died leaves a gap within their families and within the social fabric-- a gap that no one else can fill. Each person who has "crossed to the other side" was someone's mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, grandfather, son, daughter, cousin, friend, lover, roommate, neighbor, colleague...
Perhaps wearing that mask properly might have saved them!
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he asked them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent, for they had been discussing among themselves who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“Anyone wishes to be first shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around the child, he said,
“Whoever receives a child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
What is so shocking about the disciples' debate on greatness is that it immediately follows Jesus' second prediction of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. There is a definite "disconnect" between this revelation and the disciples' preoccupation with their status. One might excuse their behavior by suggesting that their conversation was merely a form of escapism, their way of avoiding the implications of Jesus' words. However, the disciples' silence upon entering the house in Capernaum indicates that they were embarrassed -- and with good reason! While their friend was sharing profoundly intimate information about what lay in store for him, they obsessed over their status. Perhaps they were arguing over which one of them should become the leader once Jesus was dead; or perhaps they were expressing their ambitions for the life to come --a prelude to James and John's request in Mk 10:37 that they would get to sit on Jesus' right and left when he was glorified. Instead of "being there" for Jesus, the disciples focused on themselves and their own aspirations.
In our second reading, James warns us that "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice" (Jas 3:16); moreover, he goes on to say that all conflicts arise from negative passions such as these. Conversely, the practice of wisdom leads to "the good life" (Jas 3:13) and to righteousness and peace. The author of this epistle is most likely not one of Jesus' chosen Twelve, so it would be inaccurate to say that he has learned from his mistakes. Rather, he refers to himself as "a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Jas 1:1) -- in contemporary language, he is a servant leader.
And this is what God expects of each of us: that we evolve into "servant leaders" who can share the Good News with those still trapped in the captivity of ego wants. For most of us, the spiritual journey involves being stripped or purged of all wants and desires that come from our baser instincts. If we want to know our stage of faith or where we are on the journey, all we have to do is ask ourselves what our deepest desires happen to be. If we are seeking fame, fortune, power, success and possessions, then we are still enslaved by our passions and have some growing to do. Sometimes, we "see the light" and take responsibility for our own inner work; at other times, it is the events of life that strip us of our addictions, obsessions and attempts to control outcomes. Either way, growth is a painful process but, ultimately, we become more compassionate and understanding as we move towards the ideal of "servant leadership." At some point, we may even discover that our greatest desire is God!