On the Gospel of Mark 9: 30-37
One of the joys and benefits of spending my first few years in OMOS is the school. It keeps me on my toes. It brings back lots of memories and leads me to imagine, how it feels to sit in with the first graders knowing most of the answers and how might I look wearing those tight shirt and short shorts again. It’s lovely seeing kids wear uniform. It’s a delight watching them carry roller bags and lunch boxes and the way respect is shown to parents before dropping them off is totally admirable, notwithstanding the refreshing smile on their faces as they see me in the school courtyard at least for those who had a good night sleep. On Thursday, I visited few classrooms. Usually, I say hi and hello and volunteer to extend few words of encouragement and blessing and gracefully exit. They liked it and so did I. I normally show up without prior notice almost similar to some of us. Only time and God’s grace can tell whether church, errands, rest, TV, or chores would pique our interest on a given Sunday. Religion has become frivolous. It’s like ordering a value meal when all you eat is ketchup.
My visit to the 5th graders was memorable. I didn’t expect I would stay for a while, much to my surprise. I ended up fielding questions which lasted over an hour. It was a grace-filled moment, though. Questions range from Genesis to Revelation, Creation to the Second Coming, the fall of man, heaven, purgatory, hell, devil, horror movies, ghosts, exorcism, evil possession, reincarnation, to name a few. It was almost impossible to end the conversation when you have over 5 hands raised simultaneously with great level of enthusiasm. I said to myself, that’s the price of not letting them know in advance. I thought it was a punishment, pure and simple, for not making rounds on a regular basis. When I went back to my office, I rushed to the shelves and took my most recent edition of the Catechism, the Bible and the Compendium for reasons known to me. One question intrigued me. “Fr. Jojo, what happens to us when we die?” asked a girl at the back. I am 20 years older than you but I haven’t seriously entertained that thought yet but thanks for giving me a grim reminder. I better be prepared.
This is exactly how religion came about. It started with a question. It was born out of the struggle to find meaning in the worst of circumstances and in the tragedies that endlessly struck us. We are creatures that worry a lot. Unlike animals, we easily fall into misery and despair when problems become unbearable. Have you ever seen a chiquaqua worrying about its life, condition and the plight of its species in the southern hemisphere? Absolutely, not. Human beings are different. We are constantly stressed out either by bills to pay, work to do, responsibilities to fulfill, relationships to build and nurture, promises to keep, identities to develop and many others. We worry about how other people see us and how we look and interact. We are anxious about our precious hands and feet, pretty faces and figures. We spend a whole lot of time paying close attention to our physical appearances which make us evidently human. In a way, it’s art. Obsession if it is a little bit too much.
In America, children are highly valued, unlike in the time of Jesus. If you see a child crossing the street alone in a busy intersection, you instinctively get out of your car and do something out of the goodness of your heart. And you do it certainly not to ingratiate yourself. The parent/guardian, by law, might be charged of child neglect. We give our children lavish attention even to the detriment of our own. We wholeheartedly cater to their needs and significantly devote our time. We enroll them in dance, music, sports, language classes as early as possible. We dress them with trendy, stylish, fancy and fashionable clothes. We take them to Disneyland on summer and holidays, swimming, ice cream and grandpa’s house on weekends. We indulge in the accumulation of toys, clothes, and video games for their own satisfaction. We play wii and take them to the park even if it entirely conflicts our interests and contradicts our notion of relaxation. We help them prepare homework and hire a personal tutor if they needed one. We spend and waste our precious time with them even if we have other important things to do. We give up our noble dreams, learn the value of staying at home and emerge from our own selfishness to give them single minded devotion. We follow their dreams in the best way possible. Childhood is definitely a privileged stage in life. They are our most valued possessions, the apple of our eyes, and the vehicles for our lofty ideals, unfulfilled dreams, failed hopes and highest aspirations.
Stay with them for a few minutes and you’ll easily know, they are innocent, dependent, vulnerable, and fun-loving, and if you happen to spend more for whatever reason, surely, it won’t take you much time to conclude, they are also noisy, rowdy and self-centered.
In the Gospel, twice the disciples remained silent for failing to understand Jesus’ passion prediction. Who wants to know the concluding date of your Master’s life. For heaven’s sake, that’s the last thing I desire to know. On the way, Jesus knew that they were arguing about the greatest, the best, the most loyal, the most faithful and the most likely to succeed. Competition is one of the deepest struggles humankind has continually faced. Society favors power, individuality, privilege and confidence. In as much as we wish to avoid, there’s just nothing we can do but succumb to temptation.
When Jesus took a child by the hand and placed it in his arms, he didn’t say, they were to be the epitome of moral values and the quintessential disciple worthy to emulate. Once, I was greeted by first graders shouting my name as soon as they saw me and as I got closer, almost all the class, boys and girls, ran and hugged my knees and losing my balance, I dropped to the floor. The teacher apologized to me. I’m sorry Fr. Jojo but my kids just loved you. Adorable, clinging and affectionate as they are, there are limits. We cannot make them references in our resume or ask them to lend us few thousand bucks for our mortgage or replace the roof of the house under the blazing summer heat in Tucson. They are incapable of doing these things. They live a carefree life. They don’t have an awful lot of responsibilities many of us have. They have no status, no influence and no income which makes them the most splendid example and valuable tool in entering the ranks of heaven. It was a metaphor used for every missed opportunity renouncing our outrageous ambitions and desire for social status.
If you wish to be first, Jesus said, be the last and servant of all. If you want to be the greatest, learn to value the ones who don’t matter and are taken for granted. If you aspire to be the best, exert every effort to welcome those who feel alienated and left out. And if you really want to succeed, show deep concern and profound love to those who cannot pay you back. If you wish to be my disciple, you have to embody a lifestyle that lifts up the lowly expecting nothing in return.
The difficulty of this passage is that we find ourselves constantly needing affirmation, seeking appreciation and searching for affection. We are the invisible ones. We find ourselves unable to see other’s needs, silent against evil, tolerant against injustice and hesitant to offer a word of comfort which is unbecoming of a Christian, correct me if the opposite holds true. But even then, the Gospel presents serious challenges to the way we relate to one another. We are not asked simply to listen to the Gospel and let it pass the other ear. Seated with a stranger next to you, do you say hi and smile? And if you are an old timer, do you sincerely and gracefully welcome a visitor? Life outside the church premise is no different. Amen.