Sep 23, 2018: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

IF ANYONE WISHES TO BE FIRST

1st Reading – Wisdom 2:12,17-20

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings,
reproaches us for transgressions of the law
and charges us with violations of our training.
Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will happen to him.
For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him
and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test
that we may have proof of his gentleness
and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt about a hundred years before Christ’s birth.  The author was a member of the Jewish community there; he wrote in Greek, in a style patterned after Hebrew verse.

Against the background of Egyptian worship of animals and mockery of Jewish trust in God, the author devotes much of the first part of the book (chapters 1 through 5) to the ineffectiveness of such mockery when God has promised immortality to those who remain faithful.

In this reading, evildoers put a just man to the test with abuse and torture.  Many have understood Wisdom 2:12-20 as a direct prophecy of the Passion of Christ.

The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;

It is the ungodly who speak.  They conspire against “the just one” because he is a living reproach to them.

he sets himself against our doings,

They have three chief complaints against him:

1) He stands in opposition to the wrongdoings of the wicked.

Reproaches us for transgressions of the law

2) He denounces them for their sins.

and charges us with violations of our training.

3) He accuses them of not being faithful to their upbringing, which presumably refers to their training in the law.

Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him.

The wicked decide to put the just one to the test.

For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.

It appears that the victim has claimed to be the son of God, although not with the divine connotations that we associate with Jesus, the Son of God.  This is most likely an allusion to an intimate relationship with God that he enjoys by way of his righteousness.

With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.

Note that they are also testing God.  They are seeking to prove the truthfulness of God’s promise of protection, as well as his ability to keep that promise.

Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

The test being planned is extreme, even fatal.  The just one, described as being gentle and patient, is now an innocent victim of their resentment.

2nd Reading – James 3:16-4:3

Beloved:
Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure,
then peaceable, gentle, compliant,
full of mercy and good fruits,
without inconstancy or insincerity.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who cultivate peace.

Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions
that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

This week is the fourth installment in a five-part series in the book of James.  The instruction in today’s reading is an example of wisdom teaching, where the path of the wise is contrasted with the path of the foolish (or sinful).

Beloved: where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.

The consequences of a foolish path are disorder and sin.

Concerns about jealousy and selfishness also occur in the list of vices in 2 Corinthians 12:20:

For I fear that when I come I may find you not such as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; that there may be rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.

In contrast to foolish jealousy and selfishness, wisdom is merciful and produces good works in abundance.

Note that James is referring to “wisdom from above.” The wisdom he is teaching about is gained not from experience, it is a gift from God.

And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.

Wisdom seeks the right order of things; peace is the order that wisdom seeks.

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?

Note the abrupt and contrasting shift from a vision of peace to a discussion of conflicts within the community.

Is it not from your passions

The Greek is hēdonōn, literally, “your pleasures” (see Titus 3:3).

that make war within your members?

The conflict is not being caused by outside forces – they have no one to blame but themselves.  They have chosen the path of folly, not the path of wisdom.

You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.

The frustration of their choices are laid bare.  What they covet, they cannot posses.  Even with fighting and war, they do not succeed.  They path they have chosen is that of folly.

You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

This is an inverse presentation of the gospel appeals to prayer (Matthew 7:7-11; Mark 11:24; John 14:13-14).

God refuses to grant our petitions when they proceed from evil desires. To pray from wrong motives is not to pray in faith.  The proper approach to prayer is given in Matthew 6:33, 1 John 3:22, James 4:7-10, and 1 John 5:14.

What is required of these wayward believers is a complete change of heart, a reversal of their lifestyle, a re-ordering of their priorities.  They must go back to the foundation of their faith and choose the correct path: the path of wisdom.

Gospel – Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He 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.

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.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“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.”

Today’s gospel reading has two distinct parts: Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection, and the disciples’ argument about their status.  Although at first glance, the two do not appear to be connected, their literary juxtaposition warrants a link, so that the two passages interpret one another.

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it.

Jesus and the disciples are by themselves, away from the crowds, and Jesus does not want their whereabouts known.  The reason for this is not clear; it’s possible that Jesus wanted to focus his full attention on the disciples.

He 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 he will rise.” 

Jesus makes a second prediction of his own passion.  In doing so, he refers to himself as the Son of Man, the mysterious figure from Daniel 7:13 who comes on the clouds to announce the beginning of a new age.

But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

It’s not surprising that the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is telling them, given the radical nature of the teaching.  What is surprising, however, is their reluctance to ask him about it.  Where they afraid to fully understand?  Where they afraid of the implications of this teaching, the suffering that they would also have to endure?  Quite possibly they were intimidated by Jesus’ recent response when questioned by Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”).

The story is startling in its brevity; Mark offers no additional details.

They came to Capernaum and,

Capernaum is Jesus’ base of operations in Galilee.

once inside the house,

Matthew 4:13 notes that Jesus established a residence in Capernaum, and Mark 1:29 tells us that Peter had a home there where his mother-in-law was. They may have been referring to the same place.

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.

Mark probably intended this incident as a commentary on the disciples’ lack of understanding about Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection.  Jesus had just admitted his ultimate vulnerability, and here they were, arguing about rank.

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Note that Jesus does not reprimand them for their insensitivity and ignorance.  Instead, he uses the opportunity to teach an important lesson.  If they are to follow his example, those who would be first must be willing to be last.  Jesus is essentially turning the social ranking system upside down.

A similar teaching occurs again in Mark 10:43-44. The ideal of servant leadership will be exemplified by Jesus as the gospel story unfolds.

“Let vanity be unknown among you. Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together. Let each remind himself that he is not only subordinate to the brother at his side, but to all. If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ” [Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca. A.D. 380), On The Christian Mode of Life].

Taking a child he placed it in their midst,

In Jesus’ time, neither children nor servants had any legal rights or social status.  They were “non-persons,” powerless and often unprotected.

and putting his arms around it he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;

The great Messiah they have been longing for is identifying himself with the subordinate status of a child – an astounding expression of humility.

Note that a child can do nothing for the disciple; to receive the child is an sacrificial act for someone who is helpless and insignificant; there is no hope of earthly reward.

and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus connects his teaching back to God: whoever receives the lowliest of the low receive Jesus, and whoever receives Jesus, receives God.

Connections and Themes

  • This week’s readings center around justice and a kind of self-sacrificial martyrdom:
    • The first reading describes a person who is just, yet suffers.  We know he is just because he is vindicated by God.  His very existence stands as a testimony against those who have lost their sense of God.
    • The second reading further illuminates the contrast between those who are righteous and those who are selfish and unjust.
    • The gospel reading shows how even the apostles struggled with this choice between the selfish and the selfless, the unjust and the just.  Jesus had just told them of his impending death, and yet they prefer to discuss matters of prestige and rank within the community.
  • Which are we more concerned with identifying and modeling ourselves after: the righteous, or the successful/wealthy/beautiful/famous?  We live in a culture that rarely determines one’s status on their righteousness.  In fact, the righteous among us are often ridiculed or even persecuted.  We watch the news in horror as righteous people in other parts of the world are executed for their testimony.
  • Righteousness is a pillar of God’s kingdom.  James makes it clear in the second reading that those who would enter God’s kingdom must be gentle, merciful, faithful, and sincere.  We see in the first reading that God’s servants must be willing to be mistreated in his name.  And Jesus pulls no punches: his followers must be willing to take the last place and be servant to all — even the lowliest of society.
  • Not only must we pursue righteousness, we must always guard against behaving like the opposition in each of today’s readings.
    • We must not allow ourselves to become envious or resentful of the righteous, as in the first reading.  If we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves morally lacking, we must resist the temptation to challenge the other person or scour their history in attempt to prove them unworthy.  We must seek righteousness ourselves, not persecute it in others.
    • We must not allow our selfish need for comfort or pleasure to win out, as in the second reading.  We must constantly examine the nature of our daily battles: are we fighting for justice, or are we fighting to protect our selfish desires?
    • We must not seek prestige or fame, as the apostles did in the gospel reading.  Time and again, Jesus models servant leadership.  If we find ourselves seeking to be served, rather than to serve, we are on the wrong path.  This is nowhere more true than within the church itself: ecclesiastical “careerism” is a continual problem and must be addressed in each generation.

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