Our scripture today is full of conflict relating to the conflict of Christ and the sort of conflict Christians should be about.
In the first reading we read of the conflict surrounding the prophet Jeremiah. ‘They said, "Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah - for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.’ (Jeremiah 18:18). The prophet Jeremiah is a pointer to Our Lord in his speaking truth to power. The foes of the prophet rationalised that they could do without him! The priests, the wise and the other prophets would give totally adequate instruction without him, they said. Seven centuries before Christ Jeremiah conflicted with a religious establishment responsible for widespread unfaithfulness to God which he prophesied as being responsible for the destruction of the original Jewish Temple by the Babylonians in 587BC. The people had been warned again and again not to make plans discounting God and his covenant.
In the gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 20 Our Lord speaks of the conflict he will have like his forbear Jeremiah with the religious authorities: ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised. (Matthew 20:18-19). The death and resurrection of Jesus link also to his prophecy of the destruction of the second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70AD.
Then, in the Gospel, we hear of a more personal conflict involving James and John and their mother who want Jesus to push down the other ten apostles. This gives Our Lord opportunity to open up the heart of these conflicts, the heart of the human problem, a problem we all face, rooted in the heart itself, namely pride. ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28)
In Lent many of our readings, hymns and prayers address this basic conflict, the toppling of pride by humility. The teaching of Jeremiah and Jesus coincided with the toppling of the Temple and its religious establishment but the toppling of pride requires more deep seated action, for which the self giving love of Calvary is eternal instrument. Examining our conscience before the Cross in Lent shows up the idolatry of pride of which James and John were guilty, indulging in thoughts of superiority out of obstinacy and a domineering attitude. They were to learn, as we have to learn, to conflict pride by the cultivation of humility.
A good Lenten discipline is to ask Our Lord to help us in our struggle against pride by a gift of humility from the Holy Spirit. May the Lord help us deepen this gift, enabling us to ascribe more genuinely to him all the good talents and abilities we possess. More than that, to see our nothingness apart from God and actually less than nothingness through our sins of thought, word, deed and omission. Our Lord asks us, as he asked the mother of Zebedee and her sons, ‘Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?’ Praise God, we do not need to drink the Chalice he drank for us save at the eucharist as memorial of his redeeming love. God help us, though, to follow his lead in conflicting with pride, with wrong self-assertion including making important plans without reference to him. Also, as James and John learned, to embrace our humiliations after his example and hide our talents and virtues with Christ in God.
‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave’. It is a struggle, our Lenten conflict, but we are on the winning side on account of the life of Christ poured out for us in Holy Week. That life is ours through the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost. Through our baptism and confirmation the Spirit of humility is in us but, to our dying day, alongside our pride. Christ is in us and so is sin. May these weeks of Lent help us do down pride and raise up humility and love some more. In that way we can be made greater Christians.