Reflection for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)
Rev. Fr. Bonnie Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.
Why do people engage in competitions? There could be many answers, but at the base of all the possible reasons is the desire to establish greatness in contrast to others. There seems to be something in our defective human nature that pushes us to display greatness over others. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes would call it the “war of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes).
Earlier in the Gospel of Mark (9:34-36), the twelve apostles were shamefully struggling over the greatest status among them. Instructing them on their senseless struggle, Jesus brought a child in their midst and said: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not only Me but the One who sent Me.”
It seemed that the apostles did not understand the significance of welcoming Jesus in the manner of receiving a child in his name. So, in the Gospel of Mark (10:35-45), we see the two brothers, James and John coming to Jesus to make an ambitious request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
The problem with the request of James and John
We need to acknowledge James and John for their desire to experience the glory of the Lord beyond his suffering and death. However, their approach to the glory was faulty. They thought that sharing in the Lord’s glory would happen by struggling to get visible positions at his sides. In other words, they were seeking access to the Lord’s glory through political appointment.
Responding to their bold request, Jesus made it clear in the first place that they did not know what they were asking. Therefore, we pause here to ask ourselves if we also understand some of the requests we make to God, especially when we become desperate to receive certain things; “thy will be done” remains the best petition you can make to God after the manner of Jesus (Luke 22:42).
Furthermore, the acceptance of the two brothers to drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism of the Lord could have been a hasty one. Often, we become too excited about an end that we do not take time to reflect on the process. The word of God says that whoever wants to serve the Lord must prepare for an ordeal (Sirach 2:1).
Our Lord’s response to the main question of sitting on his right and left sides is very instructive. He says that the allotment of the positions is the sole function of God. In order words, promotion comes from God, not from the east or the west. God alone brings down one and exalts another (Psalm 75:6-7).
How to be truly great
On the theme of greatness, our Lord says that whoever wants to be great should be the SERVANT, and anyone who wants to be first must be the SLAVE OF ALL.
Our Lord’s teaching appears to be unrealizable at face value. How would a servant turn around to become great, and how would a slave transform to get the first position? Before and after the time of Jesus, servanthood and slavery were the lowest levels of engagement, so great people were served not the other way.
The disciples would later get a clearer picture of what Jesus was saying during the last supper when he stooped to wash their feet and later encouraged them to wash each other feet as he did (John 13:5 &14).
From the narrative, Jesus indicated that true greatness does not come from ideological struggle, as we see in our society today with the strategies of politicians. Instead, in the divine structure, you rise by helping others through committed and selfless service.
We can connect with the servant-slave disposition to our Lord Jesus Christ, who took the form of a slave and served by giving his life as an offering for sin. And through his service, he justified many and bore their guilt (Isaiah 53:10-11).
True greatness is not measurable by your position but by the strength and extent of your selfless service to others. If you are too ashamed to serve, then you may not have the true ability to sustain greatness, which could be why you are not rising.
Humility remains the essential key to the foreground of selfless service, which leads to divinely orchestrated greatness. Mother Theresa remains an outstanding contemporary example of excellence through humble service. When she was crisscrossing the length and breadth of Calcutta, Mother Theresa was not thinking of sitting at high positions; she only wanted to sit the poor in the positions of support.
Do not aspire to be great for the sake of visibility , rather serve with intentional humility and commitment, and God will surely create a dependable position for you. Any position that comes from the struggle to outsmart others would also vanish the way it showed up. So instead of competing for positions, work to be the best version of yourself, and good positions will look for you.
God bless you.