Not so long ago we were bombarded with reports from a siege being laid in Calais that was ruining holidays for the British, massively disrupting trade and badly affecting the lives of the residents in Kent. The British Government funded the building of better security fences, the installation of cameras and the taking of other security measures in order to stop people who wanted to enter this country illegally. The government’s action was widely accepted. For the last week or so, however, the media circus has moved on to focus on Eastern Europe and the Balkans where local governments have been trying to stop thousands upon thousands of people entering their countries illegally. The actions of the local governments (and the media have singled out the Hungarian Government for their particular attention) are being presented as merciless, unsympathetic, and even barbaric. Is there any difference between the actions taken by the British and the Hungarian Governments? In practical terms, just the one: the latter raised the fences on its own border and mans them with its own police forces, while the former built fences on French soil and keeps immigrants away with the assistance of the French Gendarmerie. Not to mention the numbers of migrants involved: a couple of thousand in Calais, and tens of thousands in the Balkans. The media’s spin on taking the high moral ground seems to be at best hypocritical, and at worst cynical.
In today’s gospel a dozen of the closest followers of Jesus manage to miss the significance of his talk, because their minds are preoccupied with a squabble over their own importance and their own position in the company. Jesus forecasts his own persecution and death, to be followed by his resurrection. I’m pretty certain he explained in fine detail the importance and significance of his Passion. But, as St Mark reports, ‘they didn’t understand that and were afraid to ask him.’ Their lack of courage is something unusual. They have kept asking Jesus to explain to them many of the things he said and the actions he took. I guess that the vision presented by Jesus was so different from their own plans and expectations that they were simply gobsmacked. When they were on the move again, they simply ignored Jesus’ plans and returned to making their own. That’s when they squabbled over their future positions of power, and their arguments ended in discord and hostile silence. The grand scheme of salvation advanced by Jesus – the only one that really mattered – was drowned beneath the petty ambition and self-importance of those chosen to carry it out.
The message of the gospel is timeless. When we strip it of its ancient language and particulars, it tells an astonishingly familiar story of great ideas being killed off by selfishness and pettiness. Political leaders in Europe have ignored the turmoil boiling in the Middle East and North Africa, absorbed by squabbles and bickering over minor matters blown out of proportion. Even now, when things have boiled over and the waves of refugees and migrants are hitting our shores, the European decision-makers offer little to solve the problem. They are rather reactive than pro-active, focused on short-term political gains rather than on long-term solutions. But this is not an exclusively politicians’ attitude. All the way down to even the smallest communities like families, the inability to think about greater, long-term gains can stall their development or even tear them apart. Jesus knows how damaging this can be. That’s why he tells his Apostles to adopt a completely different, even counterintuitive, attitude of serving.
Every now and again I meet couples who plan to get married. Most of the time, they are extremely nice and polite people. Sadly, most of the time, they also seem to be mainly absorbed by putting in place the practical arrangements to make their wedding a spectacular and out-of-this-world event, while preparatory talks with a priest are treated as an inescapable waste of time that has to be endured in order to get a religious ceremony in a lovely church. There’s one particular part of the talk when I can sense their resistance, and I see it in their eyes: it’s when I say that each of them has to die to their own self and live completely for the other. This attitude doesn’t apply exclusively to the engaged and to newlyweds. It does apply to you and me. But are you personally ready ‘to make yourself the last of all and servant of all’?