In a large parish church, there was an usher who, one Sunday, was helping people find seats before Mass as usual; he noticed an elderly woman, who he had never seen before, walking to the front of the church, seating herself in the very front pew, directly in front of the pulpit. The usher, trying to be his usual helpful self, went to the woman and quietly said to her, “Ma’am, you might not want to sit there; the priest in this church has a reputation of being very loud, and having long, drawn-out homilies.”
The woman looked quite indignant, and said to the usher, “do you know who I am?”
‘No ma’am” he replied. “I’m that priest’s mother.” The usher responded, ‘well ma’am do you know who I am?’ “No,” she answered.‘ Good’ said the usher, ‘let’s keep it that way.’
Often in our human nature, we like to be associated with talented people, with gifted people – people who are held in high regard by others, whether it be in a social setting, at work or school. It’s nice to have a ‘famous friend’ or a friend who is ‘popular’ – someone who is ‘connected’ or has influence in our community or country. It is as if, simply by being associated to that person, our own social standing or influence is increased. People seek our opinion on things or our input because if we are friends with such an important person, then we must be just as wise or talented or qualified.
Contrast that with being associated with someone who is not successful, or who is not held in high esteem – maybe even looked down upon by the rest of the community- either for their living conditions, their apparent lack of influence, or lack of resources or talents; if we are associated with them, then people tend not to seek us out; they don’t necessarily want our opinions or advice; they might not listen to us when we have something important to say.
It is, as the saying goes, ‘guilt by association’.
This scenario plays itself out in today’s Gospel passage from St. Mark. Jesus’ public ministry is well under way, and as He is travelling with His disciples, He asks them who the people think He is. The disciples respond that the crowds are comparing Jesus with the great Prophets of Israel – or maybe that He is one of these biblical ‘greats’ risen again and walking among them.
Then Jesus makes it more direct and personal – ‘Who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter who answers “You are the Christ” meaning the Messiah.
Now the people up to then thought the Messiah was going to be a great political and religious leader, one who would put Israel in the forefront in world power – to greatness among the nations.
In the next exchange, Peter demonstrates he too doesn’t fully understand what that means – when Jesus says the Christ – the Messiah – must suffer and die and rise again. Peter ‘rebukes’ Jesus, saying ‘this can’t happen.’
Like most people, Peter might want to be associated with the Messiah who is going to triumphantly lead his people. He wants to be close to the great leader – it boosts his self-esteem and public standing. Who would want to be associated with one who is rejected by his own people and persecuted and condemned to die as a criminal? Who would want that ‘guilt by association’?
Yet, this, as Jesus points out, is what it means to truly be His disciple. That being a follower of Christ is not to be privileged or powerful in the worldly sense. It is not about seeking comforts and pleasures for ourselves as our main goal in life. It is about emptying of self for others; it is about associating and caring for those who the world rejects – the neglected, the poor, the isolated, the lonely – those who have no one to speak up for and advocate for them.
If we see someone being victimized or neglected in our workplaces or schools or communities, it is not enough to simply not get involved in the victimization or neglect. We are expected to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. We can’t, as Christians, simply say, ‘well, everyone else was persecuting that person, but I didn’t join in,’ – ‘yeah, okay, I might have kept silent, but at least I didn’t join in with the others’ as if that’s enough; it’s not.
Supporting the outcast doesn’t mean agreeing with their lifestyle or their opinions or attitudes – but it does mean caring for them simply because they have the right to be treated with the dignity of a human being – as a child of God.
It might mean that in caring for – and associating with- the outcast and the neglected and the most vulnerable members of our society, that we too become outcast and neglected, and perhaps even persecuted. (Just ask members of the pro-life movement, or who publicly support traditional marriage.)
But that’s exactly what society did to Jesus 2000 years ago, and in many ways, continues to do today to Jesus and those who truly follow Him in their words and actions. That’s part of the cross that He carried – it’s the same cross we must carry, if we would truly be His disciples.
The difference between those who heard Jesus’ message in this story, and us, is that we now have the benefit of knowing about the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ; that being associated with Him, being His followers, means inheriting eternal life, spending eternity with Him in the presence of God; and that’s a friendship – an association- that we all want to be ‘guilty of’.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!