Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
When I was a child, we were often advised at school to turn our tongue seven times before speaking. It was meant to give us the time to think about what we were going to say and so to prevent us from saying anything stupid. Now certainly, this method can spare you a lot of embarrassment, but of course, it’s far from being the best way to learn. This is typical if you want to learn a foreign language, for example. If you learn a foreign language (trust me) you are going to say a lot of stupid things, but the thing is you actually need to say stupid things – because it’s only in speaking that you’re going to learn how to speak. But, of course, it is hard to put ourselves through such a painful experience. Actually, the main reason why most adults can’t learn foreign languages is not because our brains are slower, it’s because of social anxiety: We are much more afraid than children to embarrass ourselves and so, unless we have to, we never really try to speak. On one hand it’s reasonable because it’s never pleasant to feel like an idiot or to be laughed at, one the other hand of course, if we keep silence, if we never interact, we end up on our own – And so ironically, for fear of looking like an idiot, we may end up being one.
I was thinking about that as I was re-reading this famous passage of Mark, where John and James naively ask Jesus to give them the first places in the kingdom. I don’t really like this passage and as I was wondering why, I realized I don’t like it because I feel embarrassed for the two disciples, because indeed, making this stupid request to Jesus to sit at his right hand at at his left, they look like arrogant idiots. It seems that I am not the only one feeling this way about James and John. The Gospel tells us that when they heard about that, the ten other disciples were shocked and angry, and Matthew felt probably so embarrassed for them that, when he will write down his own Gospel, he will change the story slightly, making the disciples’ mother asking instead of them.
And yet. Yet, I must say I came to feel thankful that such a story would be as it is to be found in the Gospel. Because, as I thought about it, I realized that, personally, throughout my life, I have made a lot of stupid requests in my prayers too, so I find it comforting that it also happened to at least those two who became apostles, martyrs and saints. At any rate, I think it is pretty safe to assume that in front of God, we will always look quite silly and a bit miserable – just because God is God and we are who we are: mortal creatures with very little knowledge and very little power. This is basically how Job must have felt when God had to remind him that he was helpless and did not know a thing: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding (…) Surely, you know!”. Yes, as Jesus points out to the two disciples, most of the time, we don’t even know what we are saying.
The thing is – I hope it does not make us shy. I hope it does not make us shy and prevent us from praying and from talking to God, and if it is not always socially acceptable to say everything that is on our mind, I hope we can do that with God though. Recently, my heart just broke as I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. She told me that one of her best friends had just died, and that she had prayed a lot for God to heal her and now she just felt stupid for having believed that God was going to do just what she asked, for thinking she could get God to go the way she wanted things to turn out. My heart just broke because of course, she was right to pray. Praying for healing is the compassionate and loving thing to do when someone dear to you is very sick, and praying is never stupid even if you pray for something desperate or impossible – what could be too bad would to not pray at all. Learning to talk with God is really like learning a foreign language: you have to talk, you have to pray, in order to learn how to talk and pray and beyond that – even if you never get it totally right: in order to be in relationships.
I guess for most of us, it’s really hard to have this genuineness and vulnerability. We have a book of Prayer, and we’re very proud of it but the thing is we ask the book of Prayer to do just that: to pray for us. In the book are the right words. Ourselves, we don’t know how to pray, and so maybe we think that if we read from the book we will never say something stupid to God – Probably not, but the question is: Will we ever pray? Will we ever reach the bottom of our hearts and open up? Will we ever let God in, so God can work in us and we can learn? The two disciples like Job may have it completely wrong, but at least they are trying to engage from where they are. At least, they’re not like their friends standing in the back saying: Look how silly those look like. And the wonder is that God responds to Job, Jesus engages in the conversation with James and John.
Because of course, prayer is not a monologue. Not only do we need to say what’s on our hearts, to pray with our own words, but actually prayer only becomes prayer if we listen to God’s response, if prayer becomes a dialogue – otherwise it’s just like reciting magical incantations, when what we need is to open up to what God wants to tell us. When I say to some of my friends or family, especially non believers, that I will “pray for them” they often ask if my prayers “work”. Well, not all wishes are granted for sure, and we should not believe that we can force God into doing our will, but I think no prayer goes unanswered – if we listen deeply and long enough. I think it is the same in life as it is in prayer: We are often afraid to look stupid because of what we say but actually, the only time we run the risk to be stupid is when we don’t listen because then we never learn.
And so what do we learn in prayer? Well, as we enter this dialogue with God, not only do we learn who God is, but also, but mainly, we learn who we are in front of God, we learn where our place is. Clearly, we are not the ones in charge, we aren’t the ones who have all the power or the knowledge. Yes, it does not always feel good to be “put into our places”, as God put Job into his place, as Jesus put John and James into their places, yet if we think about it, this is really what we need to learn to accept and to deal with. Our society and our planet are sick because we have forgotten we don’t have the power and we don’t have the knowledge and we don’t know where our place is. We act as if we had all the rights over creation, its resources, its animals, we think of ourselves as having rights over other human beings, or as having more rights than other human beings. Only in our relationship with God can we be reminded of our place in the rank of people and things. It can feel humiliating, it may feel somewhat limited or even dull, but if we open up to the wonder of it all, if we realize that we truly belong to something bigger, to God and to one another, I think it’s mostly comforting and liberating: we realize we are known and loved, and entrusted to serve according to our own gifts and vocations. Power in itself is selfish and, in the end, barren, but service, because it turns us to God and one another, is where we become really fruitful. This what James and John learn in their dialogue with Jesus. It’s important to realize that Jesus does not condemn their desire for greatness – after all, they still want to be close to Jesus – but Jesus teaches them what true greatness is about.
So maybe, being Christian is not about having it right, to always know what to say or to know what to do. But maybe the most important is to have a curiosity and a desire for God, the only thing we have to do is to take the first step as the two disciples did. Whatever is on our mind, we should not be afraid to open our hearts to Christ, after all there is nothing he can be shocked or upset about, he obviously heard it all before. He won’t reject us or make fun of us. But as our great high priest, he will show us the way, how to pray, how to serve, and he will purify our dreams and desires, as he did for his disciples, giving us the perfect example of how to live a godly life that will fulfill us, heal others and give glory to him. I read recently a book by a nun that said that life is about wrestling with God. And we engage with God not only at church, through the words of prayer and baptism and Eucharist, but as Jesus explains to his disciples, we engage with him through the sacraments of our suffering, of our questioning, of our struggles. In the end, God will be real for us, but only if we are real with God. Amen.