Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Authority and Service
James and John had it all wrong. They wanted authority. They wanted to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus when the Kingdom of God was established on earth. They wanted to lord it over others. They wanted to be powerful and feared because of their power. They looked forward to being in authority.
They had it all wrong. In the Kingdom of God, authority would come through service, not through power.
I had a life lesson in this many years ago when I was a teacher at Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa. At that time the school was a boarding school for boys from grades 6 through 9. And they were stinkers. I was with the Salesians of St. John Bosco and was Brother Joe, not a priest yet. I was at the school with three other teaching brothers, all right out of college, and all overwhelmed by our work. I have some really embarrassing memories of my two years at that school. We were not trained to handle troubled children, and many of the children had severe problems. We did our best, but, sadly, we often acted like children ourselves. Although the Salesian educational model is one of preventing children from getting into trouble, in reality, the model we followed was having the kids fear us. There would be a lot of yelling and punishments. That was our way of achieving authority, through power and fear. I regret the times that I joined in this myself.
But we also worked very hard for the children. I remember having five preparations a day, five unique classes to teach, and a total of 35 minutes a day when I was not supervising the children. I would try to do my lesson plans while attempting to keep the kids quiet in the study hall. It rarely worked.
One day, though, the strangest thing happened. Besides everything else, we decided to put on a musical, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. We needed music. I used to play the piano in high school and college, so I volunteered to provide the music. But this meant I had to practice. Instead of going to bed at the time I usually did, in my private room with 28 ninth graders, the dorm I supervised, I used to wait until the kids fell asleep, then sneak out to practice the piano. The other brothers would keep an eye on my dorm. I remember that I was way beyond tired for weeks. Well, this one day I was teaching an eighth grade class in history, standing in front of the class, when I suddenly thought that it would be a good idea to open my eyes. You may have had a similar experience at a boring conference at work, opening your eyes and hoping that the boss didn’t notice you. Anyway, to get back to the story, I had fallen asleep standing up. I looked at my watch, and there were fifteen minutes missing from the class. I continued the class making believe nothing had happened. When the bell rang and the kids started leaving, I asked one of the eighth graders if I had fallen asleep. He said, “Yeah, you did.” Then I asked him why the class had behaved so well. They didn’t take advantage of the situation, but just stayed at their desks reading on their own. The boy said to me, “Well, we all know that you’ve been working real hard for us; so we thought we should let you sleep.”
On that day I learned that authority comes from service, not from position or power or fear.
You parents, good parents as you are, know this. You want your children to respect you and, for their sakes, listen to you. You know that you earn that respect not through intimidation and fear, but by your sacrifice for them. Your way of life, your daily routine, revolves around caring for your children. Sometimes you have to remind your children about all that Mom and Dad does for them out of love, but all in all, your children respect you because they experience how much you show your love for them every day. That is the source of your authority.
This is what Jesus is telling James, John and the other disciples. True power, true authority, flows from service.
Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
We are a Eucharistic people. You hear that expression all the time. But what does that really mean? We celebrate Jesus’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We receive communion. We adore his Presence in our tabernacles and during Eucharistic adoration services. But that is just one part of the Eucharistic dimension of our lives. To be a Eucharistic people, our celebration of the Eucharist must encompass washing the feet of the Lord’s people. Remember that was what Jesus did before He gave His Body and Blood at the Last Supper. He washed the feet of his disciples and then issued the Mandatum, the mandate for them and for us: “What you have seem me do, you also must do.” This was followed by the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood. We celebrate the Eucharist through service to others and continually experience the Presence of Christ.
Today’s gospel is really an encouragement to continue to serve the Lord through serving others. It is an encouragement for our parents, particularly our Moms, whose days are spent in so many loving tasks and who are often many levels beyond tired. What you are doing is noble, and holy, and Christian. You are giving yourself in service to people whom God loves, and whom you also love, your children. How many of our Dads are also tired, and worn out by work and the stress of providing for their families? Yet, there they are coaching, leading scouts, helping with homework, and looking for new ways to engage their children. Parents must have authority over their children for the home to function properly. Your sacrifice is how you achieve this authority. It is the Christian way.
James and John had it all wrong. They wanted power, they wanted authority. Instead, Jesus called them to sacrifice and service. And when, after Pentecost, they sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Kingdom of God, they were, in fact, among the great gathered around Jesus’ throne.
It’s the same for us. We sacrifice for others and the sacrificial love of the Lord gives us the authority to call ourselves Christian.