25th. Sunday of Year (B)
(Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16 – 4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
One of the high points – perhaps the high point – of the O.T. revelation of God is to be found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, where we read (44:6 and 48:12):
Thus says the Lord: I am the first and I am the last; there is no God but Me.
Listen to Me, Jacob, Israel: I am He, I am the first and I am the last.
And in the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament we read (1:8) likewise:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega” say the Lord God, “Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty.”
Now, the highlight of today’s Gospel reading are words of Our Blessed Lord spoken to the Twelve for their immediate correction and for their establishment as His future Apostles chosen to serve and proclaim His Gospel of Salvation in all truth and understanding, patience, strength, and humility:
There are some very reputable modern translations of the Bible which change those words, specially chosen for our consideration today, from: ‘he shall be last’, to, ‘he must be last’, or even to ‘he must make himself last’:
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all”;
“If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”
However, the original Greek and the authoritative Latin translation are perfectly clear and, following them closely, our more literal and indeed scholarly Church translation gives us a truly full and accurate understanding of those words in accordance with traditional Catholic theology and Christian spiritual teaching:
If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.
We only need to compare John 7:17 where the Greek words are the same as ours today but the translation is always “shall”, never “must”:
If anyone is willing to do His (God’s) will, he shall know whether My teaching is from God or whether I speak on My own (authority).
The difficulty for some modern attempts to appreciate these words of Our Lord is Jesus Himself, so deeply loved but also reverentially feared; and in this instance recorded in today’s Gospel reading we can appreciate why His disciples had such feelings in His regard.
For the words of Jesus were, first of all, and most literally, a statement of sheer fact, and as such, a warning for those He most specially loved. He was not commanding, yet neither was He merely offering teaching for their consideration; His words were, first of all -- I repeat -- a warning for immediate attention, understanding, and practice:
‘Whoever, as My disciple, sincerely wills to become truly first, will be – that is, My Father will lead him, cause him, in the achieving of that his God-given aspiration -- to become last of all and servant of all.’
Jesus claimed to be first in the divine sense when He said to the Jews (John 8:54, 58):
It is My Father Who glorifies Me, He of Whom you say, ‘He is our God’. Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM
But at the Last Supper (John 13:13), while asserting Himself to be, humanly speaking, first with regard to His disciples:
You call Me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am;
nevertheless, showed Himself last in their regard by His ceremonial washing of their feet, before finally allowing Himself to be made last of all men when Isaiah’s prophecy (53:3) was fulfilled in Him on the Cross of Calvary:
He was spurned and avoided by men, a Man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held Him in no esteem.
Notice People of God, the God of Heaven declared Himself to be the first and the last. Jesus, Son of God made man, knowing Himself to be first, showed His willingness to become last at His baptism by John in the Jordan and then allowed Himself to be made last, publicly, by His heavenly Father in and throughout the course of His public ministry, by the contradictions, insults, and opposition He received from sinful and foolish men. He did not, however, set out to make Himself last; He even prayed in the Garden that His Father would take the cross of suffering and death from Him if He so willed it. What Jesus wanted, supremely and solely, was that His Father’s will be-done-in-Him. His own Personal will as Son was that He might obediently become such as His Father willed Him to be in His humanity.
All that God made and makes, was and is, good; sin makes nothing new and is ever destructive. And so, man’s desire to be like God was not evil in itself, it only became evil in Adam and Eve’s case by their embracing it as a suggestion dripping with venom from the Serpent’s mouth.
In the case of the Apostles arguing in today’s Gospel reading about which of them was the greatest, they were behaving most foolishly, indulging a spirit and using a word improper for them to use as Apostles of Jesus; because their childish -- Jesus used a child to teach them – human aspirations to be greatest were leaving out of consideration the divinely concomitant thought of ‘being last’, which they – as disciples, and above all, as Apostles of Jesus -- would have to fully appreciate and love if in their subsequent lives they were to exemplify, and inspirationally proclaim, the full meaning and beauty of Jesus’ Gospel of Truth.
God is first and last; and Jesus, knowing Himself to be One with His Father in Heaven, knew Himself to be first as God:
I am the first and I am the last; there is no God but Me.
As man, however, under the limitations of His assumed creatureliness, Our Lord willed Himself to be made ‘last’ by His Father in view of the purpose for which He had been sent, that is, to save sinful mankind who, along with their chosen lord Satan, naturally willed only to be first. Therefore, Jesus’ Apostles needed to learn quickly and appreciate deeply the divine meaning of the words He was now addressing to them, because at present they were flirting with Satan by acting so childishly.
Peter had been severely corrected for taking himself too seriously and now the rest of the Apostles, who all looked up to Peter as we have seen, were being severely corrected for their childish levity.
Jesus knew what had been going on, literally behind His back, as He and His disciples had walked along, and:
Taking a child He placed it in their midst, and putting His arms around it He said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My name, receives Me.”
In the ancient world children were thought little of and frequently much abused. And at present the disciples -- superficially wanting to be ‘greatest’ seriously enough as to be willing to argue about it without embarrassment – obviously feared human disdain and contempt. Therefore, when Jesus took one such person, so insignificant and singularly unimportant in the eyes of the world, as a child, and said:
Whoever receives one child such as this in My name, receives Me,
He thereby gave His disciples a picture that was so surprising and yet so familiar as to be unforgettable, one that offered them teaching of inexhaustible riches; and right now, the Apostles were beginning to learn how to aspire to being first in a true, divine, sense.
To be appreciated by the world one has to be endowed, by outstanding talent and ability which is, of itself, a great gift of God given for the benefit of human society as a whole, but one which can be so easily corrupted into self-service, and forgetfulness of the Giver of such gifts. One can also try to make oneself noticed by cravenly repeating and embellishing what is generally acceptable, and always walking along, and speaking politically correct words about, socially approved and popular paths; indeed, some individuals can even seek notice by outrageously disregarding normal decency and defying customary opinions and practices. Any such endeavours for personal recognition and renown are, however, of no advantage whatsoever in the Christian life, for God exalts the lowly and humble of heart, while pride -- inevitably and invariably -- separates from the Lord those who pursue it.
How utterly different, on the other hand, is the simple desire for renown before God!! Why? Because all self-seeking is ultimately totally excluded by the very sincerity of any such desire. Renown before God can only be God’s gift – utterly free and un-determinable – given as Love in response to love. The Apostles had to, as indeed all modern disciples of Jesus must, learn from Jesus one thing above all: how, in Jesus and by the power of His Spirit, to recognize and respond to His Father’s initiatives, His gifts and blessings, in their lives!
If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all;
Thus says the Lord and Father of us all: I am the first and I am the last; there is no God but Me
People of God, we have little time, so we must let Mass proceed with our loving devotion and self-commitment, for the only power that will ultimately change us for the better and for our fulfilment is not the clarity of our thinking nor even the sincerity of our desiring, but Jesus’ example, sublimely manifest in the sacrifice, and the power of His Spirit so generously offered us in the sacrament, we are pursuing, soaking ever more deeply into our minds and hearts. May we be able to leave Church today in the fellowship of Jesus, and go in peace before the world by the power of His Spirit, to love and serve God and our neighbour as the Father wills.