It all comes down to what we love. Never one to mince words, in today’s first reading James declares that every Christian has a choice: we can choose to be lovers of the world and therefore enemies of God; or we can choose to be lovers and friends of God but therefore enemies of the world. But we cannot choose both because each leads to very different ways of life.
It sounds so harsh, so extreme and, perhaps most of all, so unnecessary. Does turning to God really mean turning away from the world? But we can think of this passage from James as a keenly perceptive analysis of the human heart. Human beings are creatures of devotion, creatures looking to give our hearts away to whatever we think will bring us life, whatever we think will complete us, fulfill us, and bring some peace to our famously restless hearts. The trouble starts not so much when we give our hearts to things that are bad, but when we begin preferring lesser things over more important goods; when, in the words of James, we “covet” things that can never bring us the happiness and contentment we hope from them. If, as Christianity teaches, we who have been created by God can only be fulfilled in God, then becoming lovers and friends of God is the only way to genuine joy and peace.
The Christian life is about transforming our desires and changing our hearts. It is about becoming the kind of person that Jesus describes in today’s gospel. Unlike the disciples who were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest, we should be the kind of person who, like Jesus, can find joy in spending time with a child.
It really does come down to what we love.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.