Isaiah 49:3, 5-6, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3, John 1:29-34
On the Gospel, The Greatness of John the Baptist
A kite was consumed by envy of the eagle. “How come he can fly so high? Everyone admires him and no one admires me.” One day the kite sees a hunter and calls out to him to shoot the eagle. The hunter replies that he would need to add some feathers to his arrow for it to reach the eagle. The kite pulled one of his best feathers and gave it to the hunter. That was not enough to reach the eagle. So the kite pulled another and then another and yet the arrow was not quite able to reach the eagle. Before long all the kite’s best feathers were gone and he was no longer able to fly. The hunter simply turned round and shot the kite as his catch for the day. The moral of the story: envy and jealousy consume the person who harbours them before the person for whom they are harboured.
There is a difference between envy and jealousy. Envy is dissatisfaction with what belongs to us and coveting what belongs to another. We can envy people for their looks, their possessions or their relationships, wishing we could take their place. Jealousy, on the other hand, is the fear that what is ours may be lost to another. Both envy and jealousy rob people of their inner peace as they devise ways to eliminate the person they perceive as standing in the way to their personal fulfilment.
Looking at the way things are in our world today, it would seem that envy and jealousy are normal human traits. But the example of John the Baptist shows us that true personal fulfilment and greatness lies not in how we may compare with others but in how faithful we are to our God-given roles in life.
How many people like to hear that the person who succeeded them is doing better than they did? Nobody. Here John is a rare example. John started the Kingdom of God movement. Jesus succeeded him as leader of the movement after Herod imprisoned John and had him executed. Yet whenever John speaks of Jesus he speaks of Jesus as better than him. He describes Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as only his best man (John 3:29). Notice how he introduces Jesus to his own disciples in today’s gospel:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” (John 1:29-30).
As a result of this endorsement, two of his disciples left him and followed Jesus (verse 37). These were the first disciples of Jesus according to John’s Gospel. John summarized his whole attitude to Jesus in one statement: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Why is John so content and satisfied with playing the second fiddle rather than vying with Jesus for the limelight? It is because he knows exactly the reason for him being in the world. He knows why he came into this life: “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:30). Because he knows why he is here, John can tell when he has done his bit. He can tell when it is time to hand the baton to another. Why did you come into the world? What is God’s plan for your life? If you do not have a personal answer to this question, chances are that you will spend your life chasing after everything and nothing, in a rat-race of envy and jealousy with those you perceive as better than you. Instead of living and working in harmony and cooperation with others, people who do not know the reason for their being are often driven by rivalry and competition.
But look at the flowers in the field. Some are shrubs and some are herbs, some are red and some are white, some are yellow and some are blue; yet all of them are beautiful. The poinsettia, the daffodil, the rose, all are beautiful because they have their different purposes. As we come to the long period of Sundays in ordinary time marked by the liturgical colour green, let us have John the Baptist before us as a great example of what it means to be ordinary. Fact is, there is much greatness in being ordinary. Even though John felt he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, Jesus did turn round to say of him, “Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
On the Epistle, Called to Be Saints
Henry III of Bavaria was a God-fearing king but the demands of being a ruler did not leave him much time for spiritual exercises. One day he got so fed up with being a king that he went to Prior Richard at the local monastery and asked to be admitted as a monk for the rest of his life. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.” “I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.” “Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” King Henry returned to his throne, ruled his people with the fear of God, and became a saintly king. In today’s second reading, Paul reminds us that we are “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians1:2). Like King Henry we sometimes believe that we need to run away from the demands of family and profession and escape to a monastery, a convent or the desert, where it will be easy to become a saint. But, as we learn from the wise counsel of Prior Richard, God expects us to be saints in the concrete situations of our personal, family and business or professional lives.
Our second reading today is just the opening section of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It consists of three verses: verse 1 in which Paul introduces himself and Sosthenes as the writers of the letter, verse 2 in which he speaks of the Corinthians as those to whom the letter is addressed, and verse 3 in which he gives them his opening greeting. Why does the church offer us this reading for our spiritual nourishment today as we begin the long period of Sundays in Ordinary Time? It is because of the deep spiritual message contained in verse 2. We shall look at this verse more closely.
Paul … To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2)
There are two interesting points in this verse. (1) Paul does not address the word of God to the Corinthians alone but also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That includes us gathered here today to call on the Lord’s name. The word of God we shall be reading all this year will be addressed to various local churches – Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and so on. It helps to know that, though we live in different times and cultures, the same word is also, in some way, addressed to us. (2) Paul refers to those to whom the word is addresses as men and women “called to be saints.” Again that includes us. We may not feel like we are saints yet, but that is the purpose for which God has called us. We are all called to holiness.
A saint or someone who has been sanctified literally means someone who has been set apart. That God has called us to be saints means that God means for us to be special people in the world, not people who simply follow the crowd wherever the current wind blows.
For some of us the call of God may require a change of state in life. God may require of us what Jesus required of his disciples, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The life of such a disciple is a life-long quest for perfection according to the mind of Jesus.
For most of us, however, God calls us to be His faithful children in the midst of the trials and challenges of normal life in society. The call of God is that we be in the world but not of the world. We participate fully in society, in politics, in business, including show business, in education, in health-care delivery, and in dispensing justice through making and implementing just laws.
It is possible to be a saint even in the entertainment industry. Mel Gibson has shown that one can make a blockbuster movie without compromising one’s Christian principles. His “Passion of the Christ” was at the same time engaging and uplifting, captivating and inspiring. That is a good example of how one can participate fully in business and professional life without hiding one’s light under a bushel. God has called us to be saints. Let us ask God today to teach us how to live saintly lives in our families and in whatever occupation in which we find ourselves.