Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Why are we here? Isn’t this one of the fundamental questions that have dogged humanity since the dawn of history? The answer my not be immediately obvious to the casual listener to today’s readings, but then, we’re not casual listeners, are we? However the answer is right in front of us in the Scripture readings that were chosen for us in today’s liturgy.

What were we like when we first got here? Let me explain. Craig and I were loyal fans of the TV series Big Bang Theory. The main characters were Sheldon and Leonard. Leonard’s mother, Beverly (played by Christine Baranski), was supposed to be a child psychologist, and one of the books she was supposed to have written was entitled, Needy Baby, Greedy Baby.

If you think about it, every baby — including you and me — is a “needy baby, greedy baby.” Baby humans are essentially helpless, dependent on their care-givers for everything they need to survive. Babies are incapable of distinguishing what they really need from what they want. Whether it’s food or toys, hygiene or comfort, they find a way to let you know they’re not getting what they want. That’s square one on the road to maturity.

So, how do we define “maturity”? We are trained, little by little, to accept delayed gratification. We are taught to put off our immediate wants to achieve a higher goal. We learn to accept immediate inconvenience to attain something even more valuable to us later. The hallmark of childishness is selfishness. An adult learns to defer self-gratification for the sake of intangible values.

Delayed gratification is the sign of adulthood. But, very often, even an adult’s motivation may still be acquisition — in other words, personal gain. Delayed gratification is still gratification, and we humans are very bad at distinguishing our wants from our needs. Consider the way we talk about things. When we say, “I need a new outfit,” or “I have to clean the house,” we’re lying. These aren’t needs. They are not real obligations. What we mean is, “I want to get a new outfit;” or “I want to clean the house.” In the same way, when we say, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” what we really mean is “I won’t help you.” When we say, “I have to” or “I can’t,” we’re evading our responsibility by deflecting it onto someone or something else when, in fact, nobody is making us do anything.

All of this pertains to what we might call the earthly plane — the realm of the flesh and its desires. If we are drawn to enter the spiritual plane, we have to transcend our self-gratification, our wants and our needs, to something higher still. That higher plane is love. How often, when people say, “I love you,” do they really mean, “I need you,” or even, “I want you?” Love that means self-gratification is not love at all. Real love is self-sacrificing for the sake of the beloved, looking for nothing in return. Love doesn’t just happen. Love is not our natural state. Our natural state is “needy baby, greedy baby.” Love must be learned and love must be practiced. Ultimately, love is a kenosis — a self-emptying, a pouring-out of oneself. That is why the cross of Christ is the ultimate sign of love and it’s what we mean when we say, “God is love.”

Now, let’s turn to today’s readings. Jonah didn’t want to be a prophet. He was afraid he’d look like a fool, so he ran away and, as the story goes, God sent a whale to swallow him and bring him back. So, reluctantly, he goes through Nineveh proclaiming it’s destruction and…sure enough, God relents and Jonah’s prophesy doesn’t come true. So, to be a prophet, Jonah had to sacrifice his reputation. He had to detach himself from the outcome of his preaching and from the selfish gratification that came with it.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, is in no way suggesting that spouses, crying, rejoicing, or owning are bad. What he is recommending is not becoming attached to these things — or anything else. What we become attached to owns us. If self-gratification is our aim, then everything we own has our claw-marks on it.

In the gospel, Mark presents us with Jesus: first, calling the brothers Simon and Andrew, then the brothers James and John. Simon and Andrew leave their nets — that is, their wealth and livelihoods — behind. James and John leave their father — that is their family relationships — behind. So the common theme throughout the readings today is detachment: letting go.

Life, from birth to death, is nothing but a school for love, taking us from selfish self-gratification all the way to self-emptying. We learn, little by little, painful lesson by painful lesson, to let go. All our acquisitions in this life, from tangible goods to intangible hopes and dreams, weigh us down and limit our capacity to love fully and genuinely. “The world in its present form is passing away,” says Saint Paul. It will still be here when we’re gone — but we won’t be. True love calls us to invest in things that will endure forever.