25th. Sunday, Year (B)
(Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16 – 4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
If anyone wishes to be first he shall be last of all and servant of all.
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.
Many most reputable modern translations of the Bible change the words specially chosen for our consideration today from:
If anyone wishes to be first he shall be last of all and servant of all;
to, ‘must be’, or even to ‘must make himself’:
“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 understandable but result in a translation that is not precisely correct. The original Greek and the authoritative Latin translation are perfectly clear and, following them closely, our more literal Church translation gives us a truly accurate understanding in very close accordance with both traditional Catholic theology and Christian spiritual teaching.
The difficulty for some modern attempts to appreciate these words is Jesus Himself, so deeply loved but also reverentially feared; and in this instance we can appreciate why His disciples had such feelings in His regard. The words of Jesus are, 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 and subsequent acceptance; His words were, first of all -- I repeat -- a warning for immediate attention, retention, and adoption:
‘Whoever, as My disciple, wills to become truly first, will be – that is, My Father will make him become in the achieving of his God-given aspiration -- last of all and servant of all.’
Jesus claimed to be first in the divine sense when He said to the Jews:
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.” (John 8:54, 58)
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 publicly made last by His heavenly Father in and throughout the course of His public ministry. 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 to obediently become such as His Father willed Him to be in His humanity.
All that God has made is good; sin makes nothing new and is only destructive. And so, man’s desire to be like God was not evil in itself, it was only evil in Adam and Eve’s case, by their first receiving the suggestion dripping with venom from the Serpent’s mouth.
In the case of the Apostles arguing in today’s Gospel reading, they were behaving 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) 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 appreciate most fully in their subsequent lives.
God is first and last; 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, He 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 will only to be first, embracing but one aspect of the divine truth whose fullness of divine meaning they needed both to learn quickly and appreciate deeply because they were at present flirting with death by childishly denying it.
Such is sin: ever parading itself under a banner of partial truths, ever seeking to break asunder what God has joined together.
And it often happens, People of God, that we are puzzled by, and at a loss how to answer, doctrines put forward with great energy, conviction, and more or less apparent sincerity by non-Christians and opponents of our faith, or simply by Christians in error. When encountering such difficulties we should always remain calm and absolutely sure in our faith while showing human patience and deep trust in God, bearing in mind that often such troublesome statements are not so much wrong for what they say as for the way they say it, and for what they fail to say. Our Catholic faith is a divine gift and all-embracing for the guidance and fulfilment of those who embrace it.
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 -- feared so very, very, much human disdain and perhaps contempt. 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 yet familiar as to be unforgettable, one that offered them teaching of inexhaustible riches: possible shame in the world’s eyes but an actual promise by Jesus of loving esteem and approval. Right now, the Apostles were learning how to aspire to being first in the true, divine, sense.
To be appreciated by the world one has to be endowed, either by outstanding talent and ability which is, of itself, a great gift of God given for the benefit of human society but so easily corrupted into self-service and forgetfulness of the Giver of such gifts; or one has to try to make oneself, noticed and significant by cravenly repeating what is politically correct and walking only along socially approved and 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.
How utterly different, however, 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 and 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 in our 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 given us in the sacrament, we are pursuing. May we then indeed be able to leave Church and go out in peace before the world to love and serve our neighbour as the Father wills.