Wis 1:12, 17-20; Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6, 8; Jas 3:16 – 4:3; Mk 9:30-37
Conflict and jealousy abound in the readings for this coming Sunday. In the first reading from Wisdom, the wicked plan to put the just to the test. The second reading from James opens by asserting: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” And in the passage from Mark’s Gospel, we find the disciples have been arguing about who among them is the greatest. Thus, we come face-to-face with the human reality of competition and rivalry. If we are thinking of these terms pejoratively, then perhaps we think of political competition complete with attack ads and stinging rhetoric. A nobler rendering of rivalry may elicit images of athletic prowess showcased at this summer’s Olympics. However, what is notable for us is not the relatively negative or positive light in which we cast competition, but whether we are prepared to go beyond a competitive framework altogether.
It is difficult to escape the many, many ways that we find ourselves equating success with superiority. In the university environment, for example, one is surrounded by grades, honors, and rankings. These are not simply acknowledgments of achievement but also assertions that one has achieved more than others. When everyone gets A’s, graduates summa cum laude, and ranks #1, it becomes meaningless. I don’t intend to argue that all superlatives should be abolished. But we should become more aware of the way competition frames our experience – and can at times encroach upon our faith. This is the error of the disciples in the gospel reading from Mark. One disciple may have been a better fisherman than the other, but there is no summa cum laude when it comes to following Christ.
If we are not vigilant, we will apply our everyday competitive framework to living out the Gospel. But such a framework is petty and futile in this realm. The goal is not to be more faithful, more prayerful, or more charitable than others. Rather, the goal is for all to respond well to God’s call.
Augustine is known for arguing that evil is the privation of the good. Yet, with a thoroughly competitive worldview, it would appear as if goodness is the privation of the inferior. It would appear as if we can only know goodness from recognizing that it is the absence of all that is less good. In truth, the good is known in and of itself, not by comparison to inferior goods.
And so it is with love as well; it doesn’t require the experience of the unlovable in order to know what ought to be loved. Truth, beauty, love, goodness . . . these are the goods offered by God in a way that makes competition nonsensical. Here, success – or to the point, salvation – defies the logic of rivalry.
Economists speak of rivalrous goods – goods that, when consumed by one person, are thereby unavailable to others. These goods are contrasted with non-rivalrous goods which, when enjoyed by one person, remain available to others. Discipleship should certainly not be correlated with rivalrous goods, but even the model of non-rivalrous goods comes up short. Discipleship is not only possible when others become disciples, but the very goal of the disciple ought to be to build up the body of Christ. And so, even in the best cases of gold medals and Nobel prizes, we must realize that competition is a limited framework. The Christian vocation is answered not by rivalrous success but by pursuing God as an incomparable good and working so that all others participate equally in that magnificent good.