The green-eyed monster and Dismas' redemption: 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.”

“How do we begin to covet?” Hannibal Lecter asks FBI agent trainee Clarice Starling in the film The Silence of the Lambs. “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” While this answer works in the film — it’s a major plot point, one you can watch without peeking through your fingers — it’s incomplete.

We do not begin to covet by obsessing on what we see every day. We begin to covet by envying the primacy of God and prioritizing the material over His word. This impulse gets driven by our corrupt desire to assume God’s authority and remake the world to suit our own purposes and appetites, opposing God rather than putting our faith in Him. Adam rebelled against God through envy and faithlessness, and it remains the root of all covetousness. And as Christ tries to explain to his disciples in this Gospel reading, it is this covetousness that we must abandon first before we can fully embrace the Lord.

The first two readings today put this Gospel reading firmly in the context of covetousness. Our first reading from Wisdom 2 observes how the wicked are jealous of the righteous, coveting the standing and credibility of righteous men without being righteous first. In fact, they plan to “prove” the Lord’s impotency through the cruelest means just to set themselves above the righteous:

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

James’ epistle explains the mechanism of covetousness and its impact on the world. The combination of jealousy and “selfish ambition,” the product of the original sin of rebellion against God, has made a ruination of the world He intended:

Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.

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.

Covetousness is so deeply ingrained into sin that it sits at the heart of each of the Ten Commandments. Each of them deal with the theft of value from others, either the Lord or our neighbors. The last two (in Deuteronomy) mention covetousness explicitly — You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife and You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods — and the seventh is almost as explicit in the command You shall not steal. (Feel free to substitute thou and thy where you prefer.)

However, the rest of them warn us not to covet anything that is not ours. The first three pertain to stealing God’s honor, a particular issue with Adam and Eve and the heart of original sin. The fourth warns us not to steal the honor due our parents. We are also commanded not to steal another’s life, to steal another’s virtue through adultery, and to steal justice from others through perjury.

Even one of the most commonly used — and most commonly misquoted — passages from scripture on the nature of evil warns of covetousness. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the apostle doesn’t instruct that “money is the root of all evil.” Instead, in 1 Timothy 6:10, Paul warn, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It isn’t the cash; it’s the obsessive desire or coveting of money that produces evil, exactly as James describes.

We don’t begin to covet by seeing. We begin to covet by rejecting the Lord in our hearts, and by putting those material ambitions ahead of His love.

How do we step away from covetousness? Jesus teaches us that in today’s Gospel, after listening to His disciples argue amongst each other over their ambitions for leadership. Just as He did with James and John in Mark 10:35, and again in Luke 22:24 at the Last Supper, Jesus instructs them that only those with a servant’s heart  can be counted first among the disciples. It is not about leadership in this world but in serving the Lord that we overcome our covetous natures. Those who seek power and ambition in this world will be consumed by it and blind themselves to the path of salvation.

The real question, therefore, isn’t “How do we begin to covet?” It’s “how will we stop coveting?”

Jesus gives us His answer by embracing a child and urging the disciples to remember who they truly are. They are not God, or gods, or even the Lord’s high priests. They are all children of God, and a child recognizes and accepts the authority of his good and wise parents. This is the key to putting aside this rebellious covetousness — by coming to Christ as God’s children, accepting His authority and forming our wills to His. Once we put our trust in God, we should no longer need to covet anything, as we know that the Lord will provide for us what really matters — eternal life within the perfect Trinitarian love.

And we do have a perfect demonstration of this in our Gospels, too. Who is the man crucified to Jesus’ right on Golgotha? Tradition names him Dismas, and he was a thief — a man consumed by covetousness, who nevertheless repents and comes to Christ as a repentant child, trusting in His authority. Jesus blesses the thief for his faith and promises that he will join Christ in heaven before the day is done. We can put aside our covetousness and sin if we come to Christ in the same way, even at the last moment.

The front-page image is a detail from “Moses Showing the Tablets of the Law to the Israelites, with Portraits of Members of the Panhuys Family, their Relatives, and Friends” by Maerten de Vos, 1575. On display at the Museum Catharijneconvent. 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.