Gospel reflection for Sept. 19, 2021, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There is probably nothing about modern culture that is farther from the ideals of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than the cult of the ego. Fueled by the ability to express through social media our innermost thoughts and ideas, we are increasingly bombarded with too much information about people. In search of the approval of others as expressed through a thumbs-up emoji or a like button, any sense of personal space or appropriate levels of sharing are lost.

This ego-fueled self-aggrandizement impacts every area of our lives. We see that personal ambitions and the lust for power in individual egos stand as divisive and disruptive of our personal and professional lives, our nation, our families and even our Church. We can get too deep inside of our own heads and stuck with our own ideas that the welfare of the whole – of the common good – suffers. As a result of the ubiquitous nature of various forms of media, there are people who today are famous only because they are famous. They have contributed little or nothing to the common good or to the welfare of humanity. Yet, they capitalize on their fame and become what we now call “influencers.” This is unbridled ego perhaps at its worst (yet).

While contemporary culture has enabled this to spin almost out of control, it is not unique to our time. Every culture from the dawn of humanity has fashioned itself along ego-defined lines. From the very dawn of humanity the “alpha” personalities developed an elite caste and suppressed the “beta” personalities in their clan or tribe.

Each of the Readings this Sunday addresses this same problem in its time but they also speak to us today.

The Gospel presents a struggle with ego and ambition even among the disciples of Jesus. We do not know what might have prompted the argument, but the disciples were debating among themselves which of them was the greatest. We are also not sure what this term, “the greatest” means in this context, but it clearly seems to indicate a form of ranking within the group of the twelve. While Jesus was not with them at the time, he saw the effects of their conversation when they returned to the house. Where there was once unity there was now division, hurt feelings, and bruised egos.

St. James sums up the problem in his letter: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.”

Jesus then assumes the very formal position of sitting down as the teacher and instructing the twelve. His teaching here runs contrary to the understanding of importance within social groupings, and he finds a child to drive home his point.

Within the society of that time children were regarded as lesser members of society. They held no status and were entirely dependent upon others. For this, and other cultural reasons, children were generally ignored and kept in their place.

Jesus calls his disciples to service instead of power; to non-status instead of seats of authority.

This is so entirely contrary to the cult of the ego and to the urge to self-satisfaction and importance.

It is not easy for us to separate ourselves from our ambitions and ego trips. We assert that our egos define who we are and give the purpose to our living.

Jesus upsets this perspective: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Today, within some religious and even corporate circles the expression “servant-leadership” is beginning to gain some significance. This demonstrates a right use of one’s role as a leader within the community to that of turning the necessary status of authority away from gratifying one’s own ambitions and ego, and instead to the service of the community. This is a call to stand with and among as opposed to standing over the rest of the community.

This goes against the grain of what we think is important. We see the successes that ambitious and even ruthless people enjoy in professional careers and we want to be like them. We want people to look to us as examples of success.

Jesus tells us that to be examples of success we must be servants we must take up our Cross daily and follow him. 

Here we see the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It is also here where we are not called to be successful. Like Jesus we, too, will stumble and fall when carrying that Cross or when we set aside everything to be a servant to all. Yet this is the only way that we can authentically proclaim the Gospel.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.