My Dear Friends in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Recently I was visiting with a professor who was frustrated by a group of students she took on a service trip during her college’s January term. Being a sociologist, she was trying to expose them to the frustration of being impoverished through the eyes of the people living in New Orleans. So, she first spent two weeks teaching them a bit about the history of the city and all that took place surrounding hurricane Katrina and all the utter incompetence that surrounded that event for the people living in that area. Then she took the students down to actually see the devastation and help in a few service projects. On the way back to Iowa, the group encountered some rough weather-related travel meaning that forced them to spend an extra night in a hotel two hours from home. The students immediately started complaining about not getting home when they expected and having to sleep in a hotel and having to spend more money on food than their $5 food voucher would cover. The professor was frustrated because she felt like the students had missed the entire point of the exercise. They had just visited a place where an entire town was uprooted from homes and livelihoods for months if not years. And, unlike the people of New Orleans, the students knew that their residence hall would still be sitting there fully in tact when they got back the next day.
Our readings are filled with this kind of frustration this week. The first reading talked about a group of people who know that what they believe is evil. They know that they are proposing to defy God’s law and they even know that there is someone trying to get them to do what is right, the so-called “just man.” And yet, rather than listen to the just man, they seem to go out of their way to discount him, even trying to use his own words to discredit him. They say, “Let us put him to a shameful death; for according to his own words ‘God will take care of him.’” Ultimately, they are claiming to seek proof all the while knowing that they are really trying to make the just seem unjust.
Similarly in the second reading, the Apostle James is focusing us on wisdom. Just like St. Paul has lists of virtues and vices to describe if Christians live by the spirit or by the law, so St. James has a beautiful list of virtues for those who live in wisdom. And yet, St. James knows that there are some who don’t live in wisdom. He says, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” It seems to me that James is rooting all conflict in an unwillingness to have sympathy for another person. We create conflict because we are unwilling to ask someone for something. We are unwilling because we fear that the other person might not give us what we want. Or, if we do ask, we are only concerned with what will benefit us and not concerned with what will benefit the other person.
Lastly there is the gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to die a humbling death and that, because of his humility, he will be exalted through resurrection. The apostles almost immediately start to fight about who is going to be the greatest. And Jesus’ response is that the apostles must learn to be servants to the least powerful among us, children.
All three readings deal with the difficulty we feel when our lives don’t match up with our professed belief. Weather it be a politician who claims to hate high taxes while attaching all kinds of spending amendments to bills, the priest that pounds the pulpit calling married people to greater fidelity while himself having a girlfriend on the side, or the teacher who gets angry at students for not studying while they themselves haven’t updated tests or quizzes in years, we all struggle to live our lives in conformity to our values. We all make mistakes on occasion. Our readings warn us that, when it happens, when someone points out to us our own hypocrisy, there are ways we shouldn’t react. We shouldn’t simply discount the other person by ignoring our hypocrisy and focusing on the mistakes of that person, as the author of the book of wisdom warned us. And, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and, instead, create a war as James warned us. Instead, we should seek out the, “wisdom from above…(that) is….pure…peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity” and we should work to be of humble service to one another.