From last week’s pinnacle of Peter’s sublime primacy, we now descend onto the prosaic plains of insignificance. The Gospel sets the tone for this lowly nothingness by challenging the premises we may have of what it means to be honoured. Honour as prescribed by Christ is set within the context of what it means to be a child of His time.
By and large, the developed world1 places children at once removed from the experience the biblical world had of them. Developed society has put children on pedestals, some would even venture, to the extent that sparing the rod, it may have also spoilt the child. We treat children, powerless as they are, like demigods because of a strain of reactionary mind-set that revolves around the notion of “future creativity”; an outlook which views childhood traumas as thwarting the future genius or creativity a child might have.2
Contrast this mind-set with the experience of a marginalised group of the Mediterranean triumvirate3: widows, orphans and the poor. Orphans denote children minus the parental or close-knit familial care. It was not because they were not loved but the fact remained that children counted for nothing. They had no standing in society. And a child’s nothingness became the context of Christ teaching His disciples and also us, the true meaning of honour.
Honour and shame are deeply engrained cultural values in some societies. Amongst the peoples of the oriental Far East, losing face expresses the loss of honour. In the Middle East, honour-killing4 requires that a person, usually a girl or a young woman, be killed to restore the social equilibrium of a family or society.
The squabble for honour amongst the Disciples took place in the context of Christ speaking about His impending betrayal, death and resurrection. A key word like betrayal probably sparked off the discussion on honour because death in a situation beyond one’s control would oblige one to die honourably. Here, it was ironical that He should enquire of the content of their discussion given that honour, being such an important cultural core value, would not have been a topic of quiet dialogue. They would have squabbled loudly about who should be most honoured next to Christ.
With that question about the content of their squabble, Christ pulled the carpet from under their feet. He need not have asked because He had already known. He went even further when He associated honour with hospitality given to a rejected member of society: a child. It is conceivable that we associate childhood with purity and innocence but knowing a child’s standing in the society Christ’s time, we appreciate how the Disciples were challenged radically to redefine their understanding of honour. For them, the challenge was not just humbling but also humiliating.
This brings us to the Second Reading which raises the associate issues of ambitions and desires. In the context of the Disciples, the question is, apart from cultural bias, what drives the desire to seek honour, so to speak, to fight for the first place? How are we to understand this predilection for honour?
According to a world religion, desire is the root of suffering and thus, life’s programme is to stamp out desire. Upon further reflexion, we realise that desire is not the issue because desire, in itself, does not lead to suffering. Without desire, the end may just be annihilation—or nihilism.5 In fact, desire is a function of our search for God. And our life’s purpose is to convert our desire, not to obliterate it, so that it may fulfil its natural or supernatural function: to arrive where God’s is6--“Where I am, there you will be also”.
So, the fact remains that as long as we breathe, we will always desire and if desire is innate and not negative, we are left with how we should channel this desire for honour honourably because the desire for standing amongst men remains a permanent drive. We get this everywhere. At the national level, how do we explain the styling of oneself as the First Lady when we already have a Queen? At level of parish, we encounter people who cling on to positions in councils or commissions. And, amongst the hierarchy, we instinctively cringe when we witness a prelate jostling to be seen in the company of the British royalty.
We want to be recognised. We desire to be honoured. No one is immune to the temptation of honour, not even Christ the Lord. The nature of His temptation, where Satan brings Him to the top of the mountain, reveals that our concept of honour is often associated with prestige and power but seldom with humility and service. Thus, the example of a child opens the Disciples and us to the possibility that we begin to view how honour comes not because we are prestigious nor powerful but that we embrace a life of humble servitude.
In conclusion, let us take a second look at the honour that the Disciples sought, the prestige that came with Peter’s primacy and even our personal desires for honour. Firstly, honour comes naturally with power and prestige; there is honour to be had when one is a Sovereign, or a president, or a Pope or a Prime Minister. By and large, many of us do not belong to this mile-high club. But even then, in the ordinary, honour is even attached to membership in a locally esteemed club. Police sometimes dares not stop a lawyer’s car because they recognise the Bar Council’s badge on the said car. Honour carries with it privileges as it paves the way and opens doors bringing us to the front of the banquet hall or it can land us at the front of the cabin. In other words, live with it. Secondly, it is too facile to blame it on “selfishness” because it prevents us from reflecting more deeply about the direction of our desires. The point of honour is not bringing us places or that we are selfish but rather what we can do so that we remain as always honourable. In other words, how can our desire be honourable? The esteem for honour is a moral7 esteem as we observe in Christ Himself. For Him, honour is found in humble servitude and sacrifice of His life so that others might live. Thus, it is better to live and love honourably than to be honoured for the prestige and power we might possess.
1 The developed world would largely mean the Western world. But, granted that the world is considered a globalised village, almost every country “belongs” to the developed world. The only problem with our “developed” status is that our mentality pretty much lags behind in the third world. We have so many trappings of modern civilisation without a corresponding social capacity to bear with the demands of modernity.2 In the west, it is possible to make a phone call and the Child Protection Services will be at your doorstep to take over your incapability to form your child according to your belief and standard.3 It is an ironical use of the word because in its original sense it refers to the rule of three men (triumvir) referring to the Roman experience of the leadership under Caesar, Crassus and Pompey.4 As the term suggests, honour killing is often thought of in terms of honour associated with a patriarchal structure of power. But imagine the sociological impact of war on an entire religion where almost all available men were co-opted into the arena for religious expansion. It could explain the phenomenon of men being allowed to marry four wives. It was a matter of civilizational survival because the continuance of a socio-religio-politico entity was dependent on procreation. Thus, honour killing may be an expression of a society’s need to control the power of reproduction. Women functioned as an integral part of the “men-making” machinery—in view of religious expansion.5 John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope referred to Buddhism as having a “negative soteriology”. It was controversial to say the least. However, “negative” is a technical term in theology and spirituality which does not denote bad. It means that Buddhism has an understanding of salvation which emphasises negation, a form of detachment, and in this sense, it has much in common with Christianity. In Christian spirituality we speak of “inordinate attachment” and often sin arises from this lack of detachment. The divergence between Buddhism and Christianity comes with regard to the aim of detachment. For Christianity, detachment is not an end in itself but its achievement is in order that we enter into a deeper and personal union with God.6 Have you heard of “Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in all the wrong faces”? St Augustine’s “O Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in you” expresses the same fundamental orientation of the human person to search for the Creator.7 We often think of “moral” as an expression of “personal” rectitude, a sense that one should be beyond reproach. But, moral has a sense far wider than just personal accountability.