The top five reasons why top five lists don't work: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 9:30–37:

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

Not all that long ago, a Twitter meme developed in which people listed the top five films which defined their tastes. Now, I love a Twitter meme as much as the next person (and I love Twitter memes a lot more than I like most other Twitter trends), and I love films too, but the sheer scope of this exercise made it ridiculous. It was equal parts humble-brag and fauxpertise. Even if it was on the level, that kind of a list could change every day and never could be comprehensive, thanks to our own inability to see ourselves objectively, let alone to grasp the entire cinema canon.

Of course, I participated in it anyway. Never underestimate the attraction of humble-brag and fauxpertise!

Human beings have a strange affinity for lists and rankings. We’ll routinely try to rank anything into a top five or top ten list; David Letterman made that a staple of his career. The lead character in High Fidelity (a terrific book and good movie) spent most of his time putting his life into top-five lists. We argue over the top 25 college football teams in the country, the top ten films for award considerations, and often arrange people into rankings, too, and not just for awards and not only on the basis of performance in a field or on a task.

We rank ourselves, too, an old enough practice that it makes an appearance more than once in Mark’s Gospel. In today’s, the debate took place among all of the disciples, but in the next chapter, the mother of James and John push them to get Jesus to commit to having them seated closest to Jesus on the day of judgment. Jesus wonders aloud, “Can you drink of the cup that I drink of?” They both assure Jesus that they can, and Jesus assures them they will — but that the decision on ranking isn’t His to make. Nor, He tells the disciples after the machinations of James and John angered them, should they be worrying about it:

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In one sense, these two passages in the Gospel make the disciples look greedy and grasping. However, there’s a better explanation for it — it makes them look human, especially under the circumstances. This wasn’t a society with a thriving middle class, we should remember. Either one had privilege or one lived a subsistence lifestyle that was never more than a few days away from life-threatening poverty. Ranking was one way to put order into one’s life, even if it was an illusion, as Jesus tried to emphasize in both episodes.

At the root of this is ambition and covetousness, as James warned in his epistle for our second reading. “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,” James writes, “there is disorder and every foul practice.” The result, James teaches, is evil on a great scale, from personal conflict to wars:

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

This is as succinct a breakdown of sin as one will find in scripture. We “covet but we do not possess,” perhaps nowhere more than in the Lord’s command of creation and control of the world around us. We do not have the Lord’s vision, but we find it impossible to fully trust Him. We try to create our own order, or own illusion of control, through ambition, abuse of power, and achievement of rank. Even in our entertainment, we impose order on things by applying artificial rankings. And what is that but an expression of having some arcane inside knowledge that we all know we lack?

That is the nature of sin. We all aspire to be God, and we are jealous of His power and authority over us. We covet but cannot possibly possess. Rather than trust in Him, we attempt to seize control over others, over what does not belong to us in other contexts as well — property, power, and prestige. It is the story of Eden all over again, wherein we think we can do a better job than the Man who’s really in charge. In our sin, we list ourselves at the pinnacle of our Top One list.

This is the addiction from which Jesus came to free us. “If anyone wishes to be first,” He teaches, “he shall be the last and the servant of all.” Jesus Himself fulfills that role in the sacrifice of the Passion, in which He takes on all the sins of mankind and pays our penalty for our arrogance. He became our servant, so that we may see the folly of our own arrogance and thereby serve others. Jesus gave us salvation not to build us up in rank, but to demolish rank and to lift everyone up as brothers and sisters as children of God.

If we put our trust in Him, we can free ourselves from the cycle of sin and destruction. “The fruit of righteousness,” James writes, “is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” That way true joy lies, which should be on everyone’s Top Five list, even these days.

The front-page image is “Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11), part of the Maestà. Museum Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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