in Ordinary Time
Sept. 23, 2012
James 3: 16—4:3
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice” (James 3: 16).
James could be describing American politics—even tho our recent campaigns are fairly tame when contrasted with some in the 1st 2 generations of our Republic.
He could also be describing the Church: rectories, chanceries, parish councils, even religious houses. In fact, given that James was writing to Christians in the 2d half of the 1st century, he was describing the Church, perhaps one specific local church. Paul had to deal with the same or similar problems in Corinth, and at the end of the century Pope Clement was still addressing factions and infighting in Corinth.
There have been periods in church history when James’s more dire laments also have been verified: war and killing (4:2). If we broaden the consideration beyond the Church, as I suppose James intended, then in our own day we witness horrible killing and war in support of the pursuit of wealth, power, nationalism—and even in God’s name, ostensibly; but, I dare say, truly with “passions” and “envy” (4:1-2) and “selfish ambition” (3:16) more at play than love of God.
I trust that killing isn’t an issue in the convents of the Ursulines. But can we deny that jealousy and selfish ambition lurk in them? They’re certainly alive in monasteries, rectories, chanceries, and other church bodies, I’m afraid.
And we know from personal experience, as well as from church history, that jealousy and selfish ambition—in cleric or nun or layman—is destructive of good order, as James says (3:16), in the community and in our hearts. Passions “make war within your members” (4:1). Passions—jealousy, envy, ambition, etc.—disturb our interior peace, and if we express those passions outwardly—thru gossip, thru criticism and complaining, thru self-centered behavior, for instance—they also disturb the peace of the community.
James points toward a better way of thinking: “wisdom from above is pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity” (3:16). This is similar to the catalog of fruits of the Holy Spirit enumerated by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23). Those attitudes, those behaviors, those virtues, expressive of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, build up the community and effectively preach the Good News of Jesus.
They’re also expressive of the kind of ambition that’s authentically Christian, the kind Jesus commands in today’s gospel: the ambition to be 1st or greatest among his disciples, viz., the ambition to excel at selfless service of all God’s children (Mark 9:33-37).
Lest you think there’s only ambition or cold aloofness in chanceries, let me share with you a tidbit revealed by Whispers in the Loggia on Friday about Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, who was just announced as the new bishop of Orange, Calif. (where he inherits the Crystal Cathedral). In Fort Worth “he’s the bishop who’ll travel 600 miles in a weekend for a full slate of Masses and Mexican festivals, returning home only to run out again for a late-night bite with a youth group who sent him a text that they were at a nearby Denny’s.”
Doesn’t a bishop’s accessibility to a youth group by text suggest an attitude of being a servant to his flock? Thanks be to God! Would that it were more common in church leadership.
It’s easy, of course, to look at chanceries and complain. Maybe even at provincialates. Listening to James, tho, we need to look at ourselves. James chides his readers for asking for—praying for—the wrong things: “to spend it on your passions” (4:3). We could, instead, pray that we might recognize and lay hold of opportunities to serve one another with patience, generosity, gentleness, constancy, and sincerity (or even a late-nite bite). We could pray that, if there’s to be ambition or rivalry in the chancery or the rectory or the convent, it be ambition and rivalry to be of most service to our sisters and brothers.