So I’ve noticed that the world is pretty competitive these days. Have you noticed that? It’s a competitive culture out there. And I’m not simply talking about sports. There’s lifestyle competition and job competition and husband competition. We compare vacations with other families… we compare cars… additions to the house… And yes, there’s sports too. We’re always trying to be the greatest, always trying to have the best or be the best. But to what purpose?
Today’s readings have this tinge of competition.
St. James asks:
Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Why all this competiveness? St. Mark tells about how the apostles were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. They too are competing.
And that’s really ironic. Here they are competing about who’s the greatest, and because of that they are missing out on the fact that “The Greatest” is right in front of them. Their “jealous and selfish ambition”—blind ambition—blinds them to Jesus who is right there. Here we find a reality about competition: it can blind us to the deeper realities and deeper dimensions in our midst. It can flatten our world.
I’m very competitive. I grew up with two older brothers and I didn’t like getting beat. So I grew up to make it a point to win. It wasn’t enough to “play for fun”—I had to bring home hardware. This competition carried over to other dimensions of my life, sometimes in good ways (like school), but in ways which I didn’t foreseen: like going out bowling with friends on a Friday night. You see, because I was so competitive, I HAD to get the highest score bowling with friends. And if I didn’t, I’d feel bad about myself or there would be a damper to my evening. As a result, I missed the deeper reality and the deeper dimension of life: namely, joy with friends on a Friday night. Why was I trying up my value—and my friendships—in a bowling score?
But we are a competitive culture. Go to a little league game and you’ll sometimes see parents yelling at kids—not instructing them, but yelling at their children. How many parents compete through their kids?—it is as though the parent has wrapped himself and his value up in his child such that if his child doesn’t do well on the field, the parent is embarrassed. That tells me something….
Have you noticed that even the way people talk today is competitive? Brian Regan, a very funny (and clean!) comedian noticed how when we’re talking and someone’s telling a story about what job they do or what vacation they’ve been on, the people listening are waiting for that moment to jump in and talk about… themselves! “Oh, you’ve been to the Grand Canyon? That’s nothing! I went on an Alaskan Cruise!” It’s competitive story-telling. We all do it—we wait for their lips to stop moving… “uh-huh, uh-huh… you.. you.. uh-huh…. ME!”
That tells me something too…
When I hear the competitive story-teller or the competitive parent or the competitive wives out in the breezeway at pick-up talking about what lifestyles they have or what their husbands do or not do at home, I hear something. I hear their heart saying: “I want to be valued. I need attention. I need someone to listen. I don’t feel valued. And this”—whatever this is—“is what I got that I believe is of worth. It’s my best.” This is why the competitive story-teller tries to “one-up” everyone, why they think their story is most important; it isn’t necessarily because they are prideful or narcissistic (it could be), but oftentimes it’s because they want to be heard. They want someone to say, “Hey, you are important.” “Yeah, you are the greatest.”
I think this gets at the heart of our competitive nature. At the root of it all, our desire to be the best, our desire to be heard, is at root the desire to be loved. We all have days where we don’t feel loved. Or we’ve grown to believe that we have to earn love. We want to be heard, we want to be acknowledged. We want someone to know the depths of who we are and to say, “you know what, I value you. You’re important to me.” We want to have that affirmation because deep down we have a fear that we aren’t good enough—and maybe we’ve been told that by someone close to us—and really, deep down, we want to be loved. What we need to learn then—and needed to learn as children—is that God has never asked us to compete for His love. We’ve always had it.
This is why Jesus interrupts the apostles’ competition about who’s the greatest by circling them up, bringing a child into their midst, and then—then he does something quite amazing, something quite tender: He wraps His arms around that child. Jesus is trying to tell the apostles something. He’s trying to tell them that they don’t have to compete against one another—they already have His love. And we’re that child—YOU—you are that child in His arms. He loves you; you are so important to Him! You don’t have to have the championship trophy… because when you’re 31, childhood trophies collect dust and get packed away in boxes and are forgotten. You have my love. Why do you compete with your lifestyles? Why do you compete with your children? Why do you compete with one another? Is not my love enough for you? Let me be the one who competes for you.
I mean, if that was enough for us—I mean, if we truly believed that Jesus thinks we’re the greatest and that He loves us—wouldn’t this inspire us to give a second thought to why we’re doing what we’re doing? Wouldn’t it give us pause to evaluate our priorities? our lifestyles? our children’s schedules?
The competition that comes from refusing to be embraced by God translates into a flat world, a shallow existence. It is shallow to reduce soccer to simply a game about winning trophies or not. It is good to compete—and we should compete (go for gold!)—but there must be a moment where we can step back and look at the beauty of the game—reflectively, almost philosophically, soaking it in. Have you ever just sat back and pondered the miracles that happen in soccer?—I mean, the human capacity to run and jump and kick, and to strategize and exhibit logic, while working within the laws of gravity on a tiny spread of grass hurdling through the cosmos…. Is there not some deeper glory that we will miss out on if we reduce soccer to whether or not you were the greatest in CYC or SLYSA?
If we allow Jesus to wrap His arms around us and if we listen to Him when He tells us, “Hey, you’re important to me, I value you, I love you,” we can put down that navel-gazing shallow competitiveness that oftentimes blinds us to the deeper dimensions of soccer and of life. And it’s the deeper dimensions that really cultivate in us the love of the game—and a love of life.
Thus it can be said that when we story-match, we flatten our world because we’re missing out on the deeper dimensions of others. The story-matchers are so concerned with themselves and their own story that they never think to ask questions, those deeper questions that go hand-in-hand with getting to know another person. Receiving the love of Jesus, then, brings the story-matcher outside of herself: since she don’t have to story-match, she can listen more attentively and then ask questions—and find out the deeper stuff of the person next to her, and the relationship deepens.
There is another reason why Jesus embraces the child in front of the apostles. Not only does Jesus want them to believe that He loves them, but also that they must now in turn love those who aren’t loved.
The child in Jesus’ day would have been one of the weakest members of society. They had no rights. They were pushed aside. By taking the child and showing His love for it, He is telling the apostles: Now you do the same. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One [the Father] who sent me.”
Who is the weak one in your midst? Which child are you being called to love? Maybe for some of the grandparents out there, you struggle being patient with your grandchildren. Parents, maybe one of your children believes that they have to earn your love or that their value is tied up with how they do in school or in soccer. Maybe there is a “child” in your family or in your workplace who is crying out to be loved, to be seen as important and value—who competes, who wears masks, who comes off as prideful…
If the apostles do not realize that they themselves are loved by Jesus, then how will they be able to serve those whom He is calling them to serve? If they continue to compete with one another and do not receive His love, they will not be able to give—because they won’t have.
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble writes James (4:6). The grace given here is His love—a love which helps us to love others and which also helps us to love ourselves. This, in turn, deepens our view of life and its beautiful dimensions.
And it reminds me: children are children. They are not adults. Don’t expect them to love as adults quite yet. They are kids—we are to teach them how to love like God. One way we teach is through the way in which we discipline. Do we discipline with wrath and anger, vengeance? Or do we bring mercy, quick instruction, opportunity for redemption, affection? Do we give affection only when a good job is done? And if we do, doesn’t that teach the kids something about where we believe their value is?
Perhaps like God we could give affection, wrap our arms around our children, “just because”….
Children are important to God. And our first task as parents is to teach the children that. Their value is found in Him, that they are important to him. They don’t need to find their value in the trophy or the status of lifestyle or in tabloids. But if they are going to find that God loves them, we must know that we are loved, and then wrap our arms around them. And it also means we need to give the kids the quiet time they need in order to hear Him tell them that. Or else they were turn to those other things.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, ask Jesus to help you re-discover your value in Him and not in your stuff or your status or your schedule. Ask Him for the grace to help you to prune your stuff and your status and your schedule. Your children will notice. And they need that witness. We must re-evaluate our priorities and look at why we do what we do.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, let yourself be received by Jesus into His arms. You don’t have to compete with others anymore. To Him, you are enough. You are His everything.