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Friday, October 09, 2009

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘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.’” (Mark 10:43-45)

“SOUL-SURFING” – October 18, 2009
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 10:35-45
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

About a year ago, as pre-election tensions ran high across the country, the BBC, thinking, I suspect, to add historical (and hysterical) perspective to the arena of public service, re-broadcast a story first run on May 20, 1958:

“The mayor and corporation of High Wycombe [Buckinghamshire, England] were weighed in today in full view of the public to see whether or not they have been getting fat at the taxpayers' expense. The annual custom dates back to medieval times and is unique to this Buckinghamshire market town. Weight is no longer an election issue, but for custom's sake the new mayor, Councilor Lesley Brain, and 24 charter trustees and honorary burgesses obliged by sitting on a specially erected scale to have their weights recorded and compared with last year's. Traditionally the macebearer dressed in traditional costume rings a bell and calls out the weight. When he adds the words ‘And no more!’ the crowd cheers as a sign of their appreciation and gratitude for hard work done for the community. But if he shouts ‘And some more!’ it means the mayor has been indulging in too much good living at taxpayers' expense and the crowd jeers and boos.

“In years gone by they would have also pelted the offending person with tomatoes and rotten fruit. Luckily for the new mayor, this year's crowd was more restrained as the macebearer shouted: ‘Councilor Brain - 13 stone 2lbs - and some more!’ A rather corpulent Councilor R.A. Wood weighing in at 20 stone received a loud ‘Boo!’ as he slid off the scales.

“The weighing-in was preceded by the mayor-making ceremony which began at the Mayor's Parlor in Victoria Road followed by a colorful procession to the Guildhall. The new mayor signed several legal oaths to the monarch, the citizens of High Wycombe and to the clerk of the market. The tradition of weighing the mayor is unique to High Wycombe.” (BBC, “On This Day,” May 20, 1958)

While we in America tend to use more sophisticated means to identify fat cats, High Wycombe’s age-old method is surely simpler, quicker and so public as to be beyond refutation. That town’s citizenry insists that those who’ve vowed to serve ought to grow lean as the town thrives, not the other way around. Yikes! It’s a fearful measurement for both those in public service and those of us in religious service! Were I ever to get on that scale in High Wycombe, I know for sure that the ceremonial macebearer would call out in a loud voice last year’s weight and then add in a near shout, “And some more!”

What lesson might the BBC have been offering America’s elected officials by the replay of that now 50 year-old segment? It’s the same lesson offered by Jesus to his followers as we hear him clarifying the role of discipleship in today’s gospel passage. Simply put, those who’ve vowed to serve ought to grow lean while those they serve thrive. Or, to put it in gospel language, “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.” (Mark 10:43-45)

Indeed, in the gospel passage we hear today, James and John seem to hear only part of the message Jesus offers. These two zealous disciples ask to sit beside Jesus in the glory of heaven. I can picture Jesus smiling patiently at them as they make their request, then, totally disarming their enthusiasm, Jesus assures them that they have no idea what they’re asking. There’s a price to pay for following me, he challenges them, and it’s a high price, one you may not be capable of paying. But James and John insist that they’re up to any challenge that will eventually bring them to heaven. Then so be it, Jesus says. I’ll give you heaven, but first you give me lives of humble service to all whom you meet.

Driving home from the hospital early last month, a day or so before the start of the new school year, I approached a red light and, pulling up behind an SUV full of little kids whose squirmy bodies were visible through the rear glass panel and whose loud voices could be heard through open windows, once again I thanked God for a life of celibacy. I’d never have the patience for such chaos, I thought to myself. Then thankfulness turned to hilarity when I spied the bumper sticker on the SUV: “A suburban mother's role is to deliver children obstetrically once, and by car forever after.”

Indeed, the ultimate disciples in our day are parents! Though to their kids they may occupy positions of exalted authority, every parent knows that it’s no royal throne upon which they sit; more than likely it’s the driver’s seat in an SUV stuck at a city red light with a screaming pack of kids in tow all howling to hurry up and get us to the mall. For sure, parents know just what Jesus was talking about when he addressed James and John, insisting that heaven’s glory only comes after a long life of service. A weary mom stuck in traffic at a red light, the rear view mirror all elbows and knees. Jesus, please give me patience, she prays. Please give me just a little rest. Then red turns green and, hitting the gas, off she goes, the mall for the kids, a moment of peace for herself. The homeward journey continues.

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