God’s love is the only trophy worth having
A Reflection for Monday of the Twenty-Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
“For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”
There is something strangely comforting about today’s Gospel, wherein we see Jesus’ disciples fighting and wheedling to be recognized as the best. We can all recognize the underlying impulse. I berate myself sometimes for craving petty tokens of recognition, and it is comforting to recall that the Apostles had their insecurities too.
When our self-esteem is particularly low, most of us seek comfort in a mental “trophy case” of distinctions and awards. We review our life’s accomplishments and tally up all the people who seem to like us. We tell ourselves that we are at the top of our field, or that we will be someday. The Bible itself lends at least some credence to this sort of thinking, which views worldly successes as marks of God’s favor. The ancient Israelites were repeatedly promised that obedience to God’s command would help them to flourish, while disobedience was punished with famines, plagues or military defeats.
We must always try to remember that the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning and purpose of our lives can crumble at any time.
Undoubtedly, the Apostles had heard all these stories from childhood. They must have been baffled, therefore, when Jesus declined to settle their debate, instead drawing their attention to a child. The one who seemed least distinguished, he assured them, was in fact the greatest. Following on that bewildering statement, Jesus also chides his followers for being jealous of another person they saw casting out demons, work that they regarded as their own prerogative. Jesus clearly wants his Apostles to understand that they should not focus on distinguishing themselves as the best exorcists on the block. What matters is that they continue to do God’s work.
Jesus’ words help us to appreciate the haunting message of the first reading from the Book of Job. Confronted with suffering that he cannot understand, the righteous Job does not complain that God has broken the “prosperity promise” implicit in the ancient stories. Instead, he compares himselfto a child, declaring that, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.” In this moving passage, he articulates a profound truth that we, in our insecurities, tend to forget. We are all squalling infants before God. No prizes, prosperity or popularity can sustain us for even a day, without the benevolent help of God’s providence.
God’s law cansometimes help us to find greater happiness, in this life as well as the next. This is the partial truth that prosperity preachers exploit. Nevertheless, we must always try to remember that the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning and purpose of our lives can crumble at any time. This experience can be devastating, but we must learn, like young children, to trust our loving Father. He alone can preserve us, and no earthly failure can destroy the person who sincerely strives to work God’s will. In the end, God’s loving care is the only trophy that is worth having.