Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

The Idol of Social Status

Jesus lived in an honor and shame culture.

Who among us wouldn’t take advantage of a situation that seems morally neutral to make an extra buck?  It seems our former president did so.  Apparently, his various resorts are charging more, especially when he happens to pay the resort a visit.  If any celebrity commands the nation’s attention, from Oprah to Meryl Streep, most will, ultimately, use that attention for personal advantage.  Maybe they use it to rail against some injustice, but still it is one in which they are personally invested.  If one of us enjoyed the limelight wouldn’t we do something similar?  I would use a national platform to circulate Mystical Words as widely as possible, and make some good money doing it!  The point is, we seek social status and the privileges it brings.  This is not the case for Jesus.  A concern for social status is irrelevant at best and an idol at worst.  The Gospel is simply not into social status and counsels us not to seek it. 

Still, this avid seeking of social status invades our lives.  It is one of these hidden pillars of our culture.  Who doesn’t want to climb the social and economic ladder?  Who doesn’t want to be the envy of someone or of the nation at large?  At the very least, who doesn’t want a little recognition?  The quest for social status and its many privileges is one of the forces keeping us trapped.  It is one of the forces from which Jesus liberates us.  As with his exorcism of demons, Jesus appears in our world to shatter the myth that life is all about social recognition and its attendant benefits.

Jesus lived in an honor and shame culture.  This was a culture that heavily invested in social recognition.  A man in the ancient world sought honor above all else, and he gained honor through public displays of virtue, only this was socially approved virtue.  A man did virtuous things when he did things of which his peers (other men in his economic and social class) approved.  One did this, however, at someone else’s expense.  A man achieved more honor by taking it away from another man by doing something the culture thought to be honorable.  Victory in a military battle was one concrete way to gain honor.  Defeating a political or religious rival was yet another means of gaining honor.  The Pharisees constantly challenged Jesus because they sought honor.

Due to his healing ministry, Jesus was achieving considerable honor.  He could have climbed the social ladder easily because so many revered him and sought him out.  After all, they wanted to be healed.  The first disciples could see this.  Hence, “Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.’”  They seemed to want Jesus to capitalize on the moment.  Jesus could have charged for his healings and made a fair bit of cash.  He could have used the moment to create a political movement.  Jesus did none of that.  Instead of capitulating to the clamor of the masses, Jesus went into the desert.  He hid from the crowds in solitude.  Then, in fidelity to his mission, he headed to another town, presumably one that did not know him, to continue his mission of preaching the kingdom of God and offering the healing of God.

By going into the desert, Jesus ignored the whole system of social status.  He cared little for it because his focus was elsewhere.  He cared about the Mystery of God and freeing people for a life-altering relationship with the Mystery of God.  Jesus frees us from the ill of status seeking by his example.  It is as if Jesus says, “Don’t put any energy into achieving social recognition, but prize above all a relationship with God in silence and solitude.” 

There’s no social pay-off to praying in the desert.  Rather, the silence and solitude of the desert afforded Jesus the space to receive the life and message of his Abba, his Father.  He didn’t listen to the crowds but to Abba, and Abba had a mission for him: preach and heal.  The crowd does not determine our identity, yet, often, we let the crowd tell us who we are.  Jesus reveals that God tells us who we are.  We are loved.  We are God’s delight.  Knowing this truth is what frees us.

Jesus heals; Jesus saves.  So many forces keep us trapped, unfree.  An obsession with social status and what others think about us is one of these forces.  Jesus smashes this idol and reveals how our fulfilment is found not in the opinions of society but in a relationship with the radically mysterious and insuppressibly real God of mercy.