Twenty-fifth Sunday (Year 2)
(Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16 - 4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
Jesus was teaching His disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill Him, and three days after His death the Son of Man will rise." But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question Him.
The words of Our Blessed Lord were clear enough, People of God, but the disciples seemed not understand what He was saying. Why? Surely it must have been because they did not want to accept that suffering should come into the life of Him whom they acknowledged as the Christ of God, the glory of His People, Israel, and their own, much-loved, Lord and Master.
It is still the same today: so many people are unwilling to accept that suffering can have any salutary place in their own lives as Christians, thinking it totally incomprehensible and wrong that anyone living, or trying to live, a good life as a disciple of Christ, should have to experience what they regard as unjust and undeserved suffering; and consequently, when some such suffering comes into their lives they are easily scandalized and not infrequently turn aside from their former practice of discipleship to a greater or lesser degree.
This they do because they have become worldly in their thinking, as Jesus had reproached Peter:
Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. (Matthew 16:23)
And having become worldly in their thinking, in practice they soon come to love, not the Lord so much, as themselves and the world, in which success -- in its many variations ranging from personal vanity and pleasure to criminal power and plenty -- is the only fruit of life that is considered as acceptable and admirable. In that way having begun as just weak Christians, fearful and tremulous at the very thought of any cross, they end up as sordid participators in what is commonly regarded as life’s rat-race.
Saint Augustine has a remarkable sermon which touches on this subject, let me quote you something from it:
A sheep is weak, that is, it lacks courage, with the result that it may give way to temptations if they come upon the sheep when incautious and unprepared. The negligent shepherd does not say to a believer of that sort: ‘My son, when you come to serve God, take your stand in righteousness and fear, and make ready your soul for temptation.’ One who speaks thus, strengthens the weak and makes him strong instead of weak, so that when he has found faith he will not hope for this world’s prosperity. For if he has been taught to hope for this world’s prosperity, he will be corrupted by the prosperity itself: when adversities arrive, he is wounded, or perhaps utterly crushed. One who so builds is not building him on a rock, but setting him on sand. ‘The rock was Christ.’ Christians must imitate the sufferings of Christ, not seek for pleasure. What kind of men are such shepherds who, fearing to hurt (or displease) those they speak to, not only do not prepare them for imminent temptations, but even promise the happiness of this world, which Christ did not promise to the world itself?
Christians who would avoid all suffering either lie low throughout their lives, or else, like the disciples, they dispute on the way, wanting -- so very intensely -- to protect and justify themselves at all times but most especially in adverse circumstances. Because of their fear that criticism and suffering -- real or imaginary -- might be coming their way, they will easily, secretly, malign others: questioning their intentions, distorting their words, and decrying their actions. And thus, whenever circumstances actually do impinge upon their own lives, they tend to lose hold of objectivity and truth in their anxious search for self- justification and protection. Such disputes, however, unlike that of the openly vain and childish disciples along the way, are conducted ever so secretly, with confidential whispers and, often enough, under a veil of self-denigrating piety, so that, if at all possible, not even the Lord Himself would overhear them let alone accuse or reprove them.
Let us now return to Jesus and learn how He persuaded His disciples to overcome their fears and change their ways:
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
Jesus, however, 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. Therefore when Jesus took one such person, so insignificant and singularly unimportant in the eyes of the world, 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 familiar as to be unforgettable, and yet at the same time one that offered them teaching of inexhaustible riches.
For those so well-disposed and well-intentioned as to have become small in their own conceit, even the slightest work they do for love of Jesus brings down upon them His loving approval. To be appreciated by the world one has to be, or try to make oneself, noticed, significant: either by cravenly repeating what is politically correct and walking only along socially well-trodden paths or else by outrageously disregarding normal decency and defying customary opinions and practices. 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.
Again, dear People of God, observe what sort of relationship the disciples had with Jesus. We hear it said today: “Why are our churches so quiet? We should be practicing Christian charity by greeting our friends and openly praising the Lord there!” Notice the disciples with Jesus in our Gospel passage:
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
They had walked the way to Capernaum, but, quite obviously, they had not been walking like a group of mates chatting idly on the way, because, on their arrival at the house, Jesus had asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” He would appear to have been walking ahead and alone, and they had been following as a group. Why? There was, obviously, something very different about Jesus, nobody walked alongside Him, shoulder to shoulder, as His equal or special companion, not even Peter or John. There was a distance between the disciples and the Lord: not, however, one of separation, but rather, one of reverence.
We can see the same attitude in another detail mentioned in the Gospel reading; for, though the disciples did not understand His teaching concerning His future Passion and Death:
they were afraid to question Him.
Now this was not a fear such as we usually have in mind when we use the word: for it was a fear which in no way hindered them from following Him wherever He went. It was such a fear as rises in every humble human heart in the presence of someone far greater than themselves. And for the disciples, that greater One was Him of Whom Jesus spoke (Matthew 12:6) when referring to the splendid Temple in Jerusalem which was the pride and joy of the Jewish nation, a Temple known and admired far and wide in antiquity and whose very stones even today still fill modern engineers with admiration and amazement:
I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the Temple.
Before such a One, only the blindness of hired soldiers and a stirred-up mob, or the devilish pride of the self-serving religious authorities, could have rendered the disciples incapable of feeling and of appreciating an instinctive fear in Jesus’ humble yet most august presence.
Let us look again, and more closely still, at Our Blessed Lord, that we may learn.
On entering the house (Jesus’ own house in Capernaum, or Peter’s, is not known for sure) He sat down -- note that, a magisterial position -- and calling His disciples to Himself said:
If anyone wishes to be first, he shall (will) be last of all and servant of all.
Many most reputable translations change the words will be, to must be, or even to, must make himself (to be):
“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.”
Those changes are an easily understandable but not precisely correct translation; the original Greek and the authoritative Latin translation are perfectly clear and, following them closely, our modern English translation (along with others) is more truly accurate.
The difficulty for our modern appreciation is Jesus Himself, the Jesus the disciples loved so much but also reverentially feared; and in this instance we can appreciate why they had such feelings in His regard. The words of Jesus are, first of all, and most literally, a statement of fact, and as such a warning for those He most specially loved: He was not commanding yet neither was He just offering teaching for their consideration and, of course, subsequent acceptance; His words were, first of all -- I repeat -- a warning for immediate attention, retention, and adoption:
If anyone wishes to be first, he shall (will) be last of all and servant of all.
Of course there is also most beautiful teaching in those words for His disciples and all subsequent Christians; but the Twelve were in the immediate presence of Jesus, they had Personal experience of Him, and there was that about Him (Divinity), which made Him -- a man like themselves – somehow also ‘other’ and ‘above’. They loved Him to death (quite literally) but always with reverential fear…. What did His words mean?? ‘Last’ is clear enough, and nobody wants that. But what about, ‘last of all’? Last of all the Twelve?, last of all the disciples?, or ‘last of all …’???
Next He took to Himself a child, apparently already in the house with them. Whose child, whose relative perhaps? He then, quite simply and most movingly, put His arms around the child and setting him in the midst of them all said:
Whoever receives one child such as this in My name, receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the One Who sent Me.
Oh! The beauty, the mystery, the majesty, and the attraction of Jesus!! Love Jesus with all your mind and heart, soul and strength, indeed; but always – never forget it – with reverence and fear.
People of God, we should never be ashamed to fear the Lord, for it is proof of the authenticity of both our appreciation of Him and our knowledge of ourselves. However, let it be a fear like that of the disciples on the way, a fear which, far from repelling them, drew them after Him, irresistibly, wherever He went; pray that you too may progress along their way of discipleship, experiencing a like, reverential, compulsion to follow Jesus ever more faithfully, ever more closely even though it might lead to our sharing in His sufferings.
Finally, may your appreciation of the glory of the Risen Lord in His temple which is Mother Church lead you to shun all worldly attitudes of mind and heart in her regard. May you treasure a most respectful reverence for her understanding and proclamation of His truth, for her ministration of His grace; such a fear, such a reverence, that may grow within you until it becomes a totally consuming love which can find its truest and fullest expression here on earth only by devoting and sacrificing your own self to her service of and for His glory:
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that the world may know that I love the Father. As the Father gave Me commandment, so I do. (John 10:17; 14:31)