Sunday, October 18, 2015

How Do You Define ‘Greatness’?

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 18, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 10: 35-45.)

For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2015]

It’s one of life’s most important questions.  It’s right up there with questions like:

Who am I? 
Why am I here?
What’s the meaning of life? 
Is there life after death?

The question I’m referring to is: How do you define ‘greatness’?

Now when you first hear it you might think to yourself, “What’s so important about that?  What difference does a person’s definition of greatness make on his life and on the world?  Knowing who you are as a person—and why you’re here on earth—and the meaning of life—and whether or not there’s life after death: those issues sound a lot more important than your understanding of what it means to be ‘great’.”

Well, from one perspective, that’s true—those other issues do have a certain priority.  But from another perspective your ideas about greatness are just as important, because those ideas have a direct influence on how you see yourself and on how you look at life—life here on this earth and life in the hereafter.

It’s clear from today’s gospel reading that James and John had a very worldly idea of greatness.  Eventually, of course, their viewpoint would change on the matter, but remember this story takes place at a very early point in their spiritual development.  There was still a lot for them to learn.  In fact, if you had asked these two apostles to give you a definition of the word ‘greatness’ on the day they had this encounter with Jesus, no doubt they would have defined it in terms of prestige, power and authority.  That’s clear from the fact that in this scene they boldly ask Jesus for the proverbial ‘front seats in heaven’: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

And the other ten were clearly no different from James and John, because the passage tells us that when they heard about this request they “became indignant” at their fellow apostles.  They became indignant because they wanted those seats for themselves!

Jesus then shares his understanding of ‘greatness’ with these twelve men, telling them, in effect, that in God’s eyes (which are the only eyes that will matter on Judgment Day!) greatness is measured by how selflessly, and sincerely, and completely you serve the Lord and your neighbor, and that the ultimate act of service—and hence the ultimate act of greatness!—is to give your life for another human person.

“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.”

How do you define ‘greatness’?

Obviously most of the world sees greatness the way James and John saw it: in terms of prestige, power and authority.  And this is demonstrated every day by the priorities people set and by the things they actively pursue in their lives.  This, incidentally, is why God and the things of God—like attendance at Sunday Mass—take second place very often to worldly pursuits, like sports.  How many parents rarely take their children to Mass, but would never allow them to miss one of their athletic events or practices?

For those parents, greatness comes with being a famous and talented athlete, not a selfless servant of God and neighbor.

This illustrates the point I made a few minutes ago: How you define greatness has a direct influence on how you see yourself and how you look at your own life—and at the lives of your children.

In preparing this homily, I tried to think of two people who exemplify these two very different understandings of greatness, and the two individuals who came to mind almost immediately were Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

Many have called our current Holy Father “great”—and I agree with them.  He is.  But he’s definitely not great according to the definition of the world—the definition that stood behind James and John’s request in today’s gospel.  Think about Francis for a moment:

·         His primary description of himself is that he’s a sinner.
·         His constant request is that people pray for him.
·         He goes from place to place in a Fiat.
·         He insists on paying his own hotel bills.
·         He lives in a humble residence.
·         He has no problem kissing the feet of prisoners and those on the fringes of society.
·         He’d rather eat with homeless people than with the rich and powerful.

Describe such a person to some average men and women on the street (without revealing the identity of the person you are describing) and see how many of them respond by saying, “Wow, what a great man!”

In all likelihood, not too many will.

Then describe Donald Trump to them (again, without revealing his name) and see what kind of response you get.  I guarantee you that, if they are being honest, most will be much more willing to call Trump “great”—even if they would never, ever vote for him in an election.

I think the real problem here is that many people confuse success (specifically WORLDLY success) with greatness.  But they’re not the same.  As Blessed Mother Teresa used to say, “God has not called us to be successful, he’s called us to be faithful.”  (Substitute the word “great” for “faithful” in that statement, and it would pretty much mean the same thing.)

Donald Trump is successful—extremely successful!—but in and of itself that doesn’t make him great (in the true and Christian sense of the term).  Pope Francis, on the other hand, is great by Christian standards, but highly unsuccessful by the standards of people like Donald Trump.

The bottom line is this:

Some people in this life are successful; some people in this life are great; and some are successful AND great!

Yes, it is possible to be both—one does not automatically exclude the other.  It’s not easy to be both, for sure, though it is possible.

But if you are forced in your life to choose one or the other, then choose to be great!—just make sure you embrace the right definition of greatness.

And if you’re wondering what that definition is, look to Pope Francis, not to Donald Trump.