Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Heroes are made, not born." So are saints. (Seeing beyond the misplaced ambition and impure motivations of the sons of Zebedee, Mk. 10:35-45)

“Heroes are made, not born”. So are saints. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line as I thought about the sons of Zebedee, portrayed in today’s gospel reading as two overly ambitious young men who come to Jesus with a rather odd, though somehow understandable request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”, they say to Jesus. Asked what it was, they declare without even worrying about what the other apostles might think of them: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right, and one at your left”.

This past week, I had to once again read hundreds of pages of midterm papers written by my students. It was a lot of work! And while at certain moments I found the exercise quite exhausting, I likewise found joy, even inspiration in the fact that their works did give me a kind of window into their lives, their struggles with their faith, as well as the ups and downs of their attempts to remain faithful to their calling.

There was one paper in particular that stood out (I obviously can’t share whose paper it is, and to respect the confidentiality of the exercise, I’ll try to be as general as possible). In it, my student said something I’ve heard from not a few young men whom I’ve taught in seminary over the years: “I’m not sure how pure or even sincere my motivations are for wanting to enter seminary and become a priest”.

My initial reaction to such thoughts—which was the same reaction my own spiritual director had to my own questioning years ago—has always been, “Do such things as pristine and totally sincere motivations for anything actually exist in this world?” We live, after all, in a far-from-ideal and far-from-perfect world, and perhaps all motives are an admixture of light and shadows. I doubt any of the twelve men who first followed Jesus were themselves totally clear concerning their motives for following him.

The request of James and John in today’s gospel reading, as well as the constant misunderstanding of the other ten about the true meaning of Jesus’ mission, is testament to that fact.

In this regard, allow me share with you the stories of two individuals I’ve always admired, and with whom I’ve in fact kept in touch to this day; one’s a doctor, the other’s a priest.

The doctor (let’s just call him “James” though that isn’t his real name as I wasn't able to get his permission to talk about him in this homily) came from a very wealthy family; his parents were both doctors, and so was his paternal grandfather and a number of his uncles and aunts.

The priest (let’s call him “John”, not his real name either) belonged to an equally affluent family who’s father, a rather stern and controlling man, was a government official who had pretty much planned and laid out what he wanted each of his five children, two boys and three girls, to be. John, the eldest was going to be an engineer.

James decided to follow in his father’s footsteps; but not because of any noble reason, but simply because—as he used to tell his friends, “I come from a family of doctors, and they do very well”. He was a very likeable and friendly guy, generous towards his friends, but a little too self-oriented, even a tad conceited; and—perhaps due to his rather sheltered upbringing—had very little understanding and time for the poor. One of his favorite lines, which I and some of our friends found rather jarring was, “They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

John, on the other hand, entered seminary and was in fact a rather decent and hard-working seminarian; though like James, he decision to discern the vocation to the priesthood—as he later shared with some of his closest friends—was partly motivated by a desire to run away from his controlling father and what he called a “suffocating environment” at home.

Given the lack of clarity—and that’s putting it rather mildly—of these two men’s motives, they could certainly have ended up being a less-than-exemplary physician and a poor excuse for a priest. But that’s not what happened. 

James today works with some of the poorest members of a community in a small rural village. After having worked in a big city hospital and making a lot of money, he decided that he wanted to do something more, “something noble and good for the unfortunate”, as he puts it. 

And John, the young man who entered seminary partly to escape his father’s control, is today a hard-working, kind, loving and generous priest who is well-loved and respected by his parishioners, “one of the best priests I know”, as a parishioner of his said to me when I once visited him. (He also managed to reconcile with his dad before he passed away.)

Both men are proof that our motives though they may in fact be initially unclear and even impure, can, with the help of God’s grace and our full cooperation with it, be rendered worthy and acceptable. And their stories are testaments to the fact that the power of God’s grace and our willingness to be guided and enlightened by it, can transform us into noble and heroic individuals - just as it did to this doctor and priest; perhaps even make saints out of us - just as it did to the sons of Zebedee.

For when we have said all that can be said about the apostles James and John (and against their seemingly inordinate ambition in today’s gospel), their account tells us one truly shining thing about them: confused as they might have been, they put their confidence and trust completely in the one whom they had chosen to follow.

Despite all seeming proofs to the contrary, these two men could still connect glory and final victory to this poor carpenter who had no power, no high education, no wealth, who had incurred the enmity and bitter opposition of the religious leaders, and who, for all intents and purposes, looked like he was headed for a most painful and ignominious end.

There is amazing confidence and loyalty in these sons of Zebedee. Their motives may not have always been clear and pure; they may have been misguided, confused and ambitious, but their hearts were surely in the right place. They had an indestructible faith that in the end Jesus would triumph, and the fact that they spent the remainder of their lives preaching His message is proof positive that the initially impure motivation notwithstanding, their hearts were in the right place. 

The question thus is not whether our initial motives are pure or not, the question is whether we are willing to allow the fire of God's grace to gradually purify them.

The story of James and John is a reminder to us as well. While we may sometimes fail to understand and accept the challenging and difficult things about our faith, and while our motivations may not always be clear and pure, we would do well to cast our lot with Jesus and remain faithful to him as the sons of Zebedee did, for with God’s grace and with our willingness to put in as much effort into cooperating with it, everything is possible, including transforming us, ordinary men and women into heroes, even saints.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)