Saturday, October 17, 2015

Jesus' guide to success and happiness

In one of the last quotes of his papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” It is at its heart a quote about what we are called to and what constitutes success.

This is also at the heart of our Gospel today. Our passage gives us this grab-for-glory by two of the disciples – James and John – who want a privileged place in the Kingdom; one at the right and one at the left of Jesus. They are grabbing for what they believe to be success – an important position. Jesus turns their question on its head, “You do not know what you’re asking,” He tells them. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Alexander Woollcott, a famous alumni of Hamilton College, was asked to speak at the school’s centennial celebration. He gave a memorable speech which began with these words: “Some of you are successes, and some of you are failures - only God knows which are which!” His words are a reminder that in our measurement of success and failure, “God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways God's ways.”

This is a timeless message of the Gospel – greatness is found by being the least; success is found in servanthood. Yet, how often we treat that message as quaint and fail to embrace its reality. For example, the Princeton Review reports that Business Management continues to be overwhelmingly the number one college major and the reason given for pursuing it is “to be rich and successful.” And yet, Forbes Magazine reports that the happiest professions in the United States don’t include business jobs. The happiest people are: artists, teachers, physical therapists, firefighters and the number one spot? Clergy! So, what happens when the criteria for success are not the same as the criteria for happiness?

James and John learn the hard way in today's Gospel that success isn’t determined by accomplishments, wealth or status. The measure of our success and consequently happiness is whether or not we are cooperating with God’s plan for us. If there is one thing we know for sure about success, it is this: God created everyone for success. As Pope Benedict said, we are created for greatness. God did not create anyone for failure. But, we have to make our measure, God’s measure. For most people, as for James and John, success means to be head of the pack. To succeed means to excel. Success is measured by comparing one's achievements against “competitors.” That’s why James and John go to Jesus and instead of asking that they be granted a place in His kingdom, they ask for prime position. Jesus teaches them a new meaning of success.

Success means realizing and fulfilling God's dream for you. There can be no life happier than that. Jesus is inviting us not to compete, but to cooperate with Him. He is inviting us not to plot for conquest, but to learn to listen to the plan that God speaks to our hearts.

James and John, on the other hand, represent the mentality of our world today which encourages unbridled ambition, rather than seeking to discern God's will for our lives. It encourages rivalry and unhealthy competition, rather than cooperation and the contentment of realizing that when we become servant to one another we can all succeed.

God has more than enough dreams to go round, a different dream for everyone here today, a different dream for every single person in the world – throughout all of time. Our ambition, our goal in life should be simply and only this: to discover and live God's dream for us. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the only true measure of success and happiness: what would God have me do. But to vie and struggle with one another over the same dreams; to be jealous and envious over what someone else has or is – that is failure. And so, if we don’t fulfill God’s dream for us – who will?

The actor Denzel Washington said, "Success? I don't know what that word means. I'm happy. For me, success is inner peace. That's a good day for me." May the same be true for us. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” May we all achieve the greatness that God has destined us for.

May the Lord give you peace!

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