September 19, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament Book of Wisdom (which Catholics accept but Protestants and Jews don’t) the author writes of the “godless” and their plans for violence against the virtuous man. They find the virtuous man annoying because of accusations when they break the law. They plan his death and cynically say that if “the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part and rescue him.” Mark’s Gospel continues shortly after last week and continues his theme that the Son of Man we be delivered to evil men who will put him to death. But as Jesus and his disciples continue their journey to Capernaum he learned that his disciples were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. Jesus reproves them by telling them that anyone who wishes to be first must make himself the servant of the others. “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

So who is exactly the greatest? If we have one obsession, that’s it. In the last few years we’ve even come up with the acronym GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Athletes (Muhammad Ali), politicians (Donald Trump) have considered themselves the greatest.

And yet we see in Mark’s Gospel that several of his followers argued over which one of them was the greatest. In fairness we don’t know if they were each advocating for themselves, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. Seeking to be the greatest, or even ranking ourselves in any group, shows a lack of understanding of our call to discipleship.

Dozens of times in the Gospels we see his disciples not living their best faith but it appears to me that it happens most often in Mark’s Gospel. I sometimes refer to Mark’s Gospel as the
unauthorized biography of the disciples.

And in fairness, Jesus’ message just before this clearly confused them. We can easily draw the line from “Son of Man” to Jesus but they didn’t. Passages going back to the prophet Ezekiel speak of the Son of Man and it’s always in apocalyptic terms. In other words that title is tied to the end of times. And Jesus goes even further, tying this imagery to suffering and death, not just victory in the end.

Let’s face it: when a teacher explains something that goes right past us, we tend to ignore it and go on to something else. In the mid 1980s I attempted to read Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time on the promise that he was so brilliant that even I could understand it. I spent hours attempting to focus and refocus my eyes on the page, hoping that I could get through this chapter and the next one would make more sense. It never happened. At the end of the book I finally had to admit I understood nearly nothing of what he said and I moved on with my life.

But let’s also look at it from Jesus’ perspective: he was trying to teach them about something that was both important and confusing. For the people of Jesus’ time, the “end of time” (which would have made no sense) or the coming of the Messiah (which would have made perfect sense), it was seen as a time of victory and fulfillment, not a time of suffering and death. And they responded by bickering about who was the greatest.

The thing is, we shouldn’t be concerned about who is the greatest. And it’s a hard ask for us.

We even have a hard time within the confines of the Church. If we see Peter as the first Pope we can certainly agree that he didn’t live in the Vatican, wear fancy vestments, and ride around in the Popemobile. As the Christian Church has found, we often fall in our attempt to eschew the trappings of office. We see some clergy of nearly all denominations driving expensive cars, living in mansions, and convincing people that their greatness finds its origin in God’s blessing.

But Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them should be the servant of all. The greatest should be the least. And if we look closely we can see those among us. We can look at Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa. But I’d like to look at someone I met only a few times and died earlier in the summer.

Fr. Joe Carroll was born in the Bronx, New York and was ordained a priest in San Diego. He saw his life as a parish priest, but one day his bishop asked him to head the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity that does outreach to the poor. He was reluctant as he had no experience in meeting the needs of the poor. By the time he retired in 2010 Fr. Joe’s Village employed 500 people and generated revenue for the poor in excess of $40 million. As it turned out he was a genius as a fundraiser as well as a genius in hiring people who would could find the most efficient and most caring way to empower the poor. He didn’t help them so much as he invested in them. As I said I only met him a few times, but he was never someone who sought greatness or even respect. He embodied humility and a deep love of our call to be with each other.

In the end, that’s what Jesus asks of us. If we pursue discipleship instead of greatness we understand Jesus in a new way and more importantly it allows us to see Jesus not only as the Son of Man but also that he must suffer and die.

As for Fr. Joe, we will always miss him.