James, from our second reading today, asks a question that unfortunately needs to be asked in every generation.
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
James gives us a place to start:
Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.
Conflict and division come from the disordering of our thoughts, desires, passions, words, and actions. There is something a bit off kilter with us. This disorder or dis-orientation is caused by our choosing our self over God. This stance of turning in upon ourselves, saying we are the center of the universe and all is to revolve around us comes from the condition of Original Sin which weakens and wounds our human nature. This condition is made worse by the belief that we can save ourselves.
We seek the truth, we seek to be happy and we seek to be fulfilled but we follow false promises, substitutes that are apparent goods that appeal to our egotism, our prid, and our fear. St Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century Dominican doctor of the Church, categorizes these four substitutes or temptations that lead us astray from our proper orientation to God:
Pleasure, Wealth, Power and Honor
In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with any of these, but when we make any or all of them into an idol, our primary focus, when we pursue them as a means to provide our stability, satisfaction and fulfillment, we will be led astray.
Pleasure feels good and it brings us instant gratification. The problem is that once the external agent or stimulus of the pleasure ends, so does the experience, and it leaves us empty and wanting more.
Wealth promises us that if we just have enough money we can get whatever we want, do whatever we want, we can also be safe and secure. But again, we will still experience that deep hunger within us that cannot be fed by that which is finite or material.
Power has the promise of access, of controlling the unpredictability of life’s challenges, yet, as the Catholic historian and moralist, Lord Acton, wrote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Honor, closely linked with power, we see played out in our present day through the cult of celebrity that is sown into the very fabric of our society. So many seek their fifteen minutes of fame, too many not caring how they can get it.
We witness the Apostles in today’s Gospel, the closest to Jesus and his teaching, falling for the temptations of power and honor as they argue among themselves who is to be the greatest among them. The deeper sadness of their debate is that they are engaged in it just after Jesus has explained to them that he will be handed over and killed. The Apostles are so ensnared in the hierarchical structure of the society of their time that they fail to have the empathy and compassion to be present to Jesus as he shares with them his horrific fate.
We witness time and again, from the ancient times to today, the effects of Original Sin. The English convert to Catholicism, GK Chesterton, wrote that, “original sin… is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy). We can see it in the streets, we can see it in the news, we can see it looking back at us in the mirror, for we too fall into indifference, lack of empathy, and resist slwoing down enough to be present and accompany others.
Original Sin is perpetuated when we choose to put ourselves in the center where God belongs. We must resist its lure and acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot find happiness, security, joy and fulfillment in any finite or material pursuit. While at the same time, we can also acknowledge that even though Original Sin is real, even though we have been wounded and battered by its effects, we have not been overcome, we are not totally corrupt or destroyed by it.
We have been created good by God, and the embers of that goodness remain in each and every one of us. The embers still smolder, just awaiting to be stoked and set ablaze. God has created us as a living, craving, hunger and desire to be one with God and one another and this is true for the atheist and the mystic alike.
The antidote to the poison of Original Sin is Jesus the Christ. He, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who became one with us so that we can become one with him. In our Baptism we are cleansed from the condition of Original Sin and are indelibly marked, we are conformed to the very being of Jesus. We become part of his Body.
Yet, while freed from the bondage of Original Sin by our Baptism, we are still tempted to return to the place of our slavery, like the Hebrew slaves yearning for Egypt, like Lot’s wife looking back to Sodom and Gomorrah. We need to keep our eyes focused on looking ahead, to that which is above. Jesus shares with his Apostles in today’s Gospel that we are to turn the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, and honor on its head when he states that: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Only a relationship with God will bring us happiness and fulfillment.
We begin our path of walking as disciples by becoming like the small child that Jesus brought into their midst. The child in ancient Palestine was nothing. He had no status, no significance, no wealth, power, or honor. Each child was completely dependent on their parents. This is to be our starting point in being a disciple. We need to reject the notion outright that we can heal ourselves and admit that we need Jesus to restore us to our relationship with our Father and place our sole dependence in him for everything. God, not self, is to be our end goal.
As James wrote, “the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”
May we support and accompany one another as we seek to deepen our journey with Jesus. May we be willing to serve, to give of our time, talent and treasure to build up the Kingdom here on earth. May we be willing to gather and join a small group, so that we can feel the support and encouragement so as to realize that we do not have to walk alone. May we be open to pray to the one who created us, read the Bible to enter into the lives of those who have experienced an openness to encountering God, and read the lives of the saints, those who are now where we seek to one day be! May we participate in the sacraments and life of the Church, and above all, share our stories of faith with those in our realm of influence and invite others to join us on our journey.
We are one Body in Christ. All of us want to be happy, fulfilled, find meaning in our lives, to belong and to be a part of something greater than ourselves. This is who God has created us to be. St Augustine realized this when he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and we are restless until we rest in you.” It is never too late to come to realize that God loves us more than we can ever mess up and that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. God is our hope, our goal, and the answer to our deepest desire.
Let us cast off jealousy, fear, pride, and selfish ambition, and instead prepare our hearts, minds and souls to receive Jesus in our time of meditation, prayer, service, in his very real presence in the Eucharist celebrated today at Mass, so to be forgiven, healed, renewed, reconnected, and in so doing, find the fulfillment we have been created for.
Once we receive and experience his unconditional love, may the embers of our soul ignite with the flame of his love such that we can recognize the wonderful diversity of the Body of Christ in those we encounter and be willing to embrace and respect the human dignity of one another in each and every one of our interactions this week.