Sep 19, 2021: 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;

The ungodly speak. Not content with enjoying the pleasures of life, they conspire against “the just one” because he is a living reproach to them.

he sets himself against our doings,

The wicked have three chief complaints against the just man:

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.

In verse 13, which is not included in our reading, the just man calls himself a “child of God” (the Greek word pais used for “child” can also be translated as “servant”).

To be clear, this claim of intimacy with God does not have the divine connotations that we associate with Jesus, the Son of God.

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

The wicked obviously do not believe the claim that God will protect him and do not expect to be held accountable for their actions.

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

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

The words of the wicked in this passage are echoed in the insults offered by scribes and Pharisees to Jesus when he was on the cross (Matthew 27:40-43; Mark 15:31-32; Luke 23:35-37).

Our reading omits the author’s judgment on the plans of the wicked. The passage goes on to say:

“These were their thoughts, but they erred;
for their wickedness blinded them.
And they knew not the hidden counsels of God; 
neither did they count on a recompense of holiness
nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.” (Wisdom 2:21-22)

The author of the Book of Wisdom is teaching that the final reward of the just and the unjust is not the same. He is also teaching that the whole question of reward and punishment is not settled during life on earth.

When we read this passage in the context of Jesus’ predictions of his passage (our gospel reading today), we apply the words to Jesus. The just man’s claims were true in Jesus’ case: God did defend Jesus and deliver him from his foes, but not on earth. It was this mystery that was completely beyond the disciples’ understanding, and so they failed to comprehend Jesus’ warnings.

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 choice is laid bare. What they covet, they cannot possess. Even with fighting and war, they do not succeed. The path they have chosen is that of folly.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus, like James, is trying to warn the apostles against selfish ambition. Instead of seeking prestige or power, Jesus wants his followers to serve the poor and vulnerable. The kingdom of God is established not by acting on our self-serving instincts or by waging war, but by acknowledging that God is king and by learning to love one another.

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’ second prediction of his death and resurrection (we read of his first prediction last week), 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 teaching just his disciples.

Between last Sunday’s reading and today’s, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration and the story of the healing of a boy possessed by a “mute spirit” that the disciples had unsuccessfully tried to cast out. When Jesus hears this news, he says, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” (Mark 9:19).

As we have seen, Mark emphasizes the disciples’ lack of understanding throughout his gospel. So it makes sense that Jesus would want to spend time giving them focused instruction.

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 (the first is Mark 8:31). In both instances, 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. In both instances, he insists that his suffering is necessary. In both instances, he speaks of his resurrection.

But they did not understand the saying, 

It’s not surprising that the disciples fail to understand. The idea that Jesus was the Son of Man, the person to whom God would give authority over other nations, was simply incompatible with the idea that Jesus would be killed. The disciples could not understand how these two things could simultaneously be true.

and they were afraid to question him.

It’s more difficult to understand their reluctance to ask Jesus to explain further. Were they afraid to fully understand? Were they afraid of the implications of this teaching, the suffering that they would also have to endure?

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

Quite possibly they were intimidated by Jesus’ recent response when questioned by Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”).

Also, after their failure to exorcise the mute spirit from the boy, Jesus seemed exasperated. It makes sense that they would hesitate to make Jesus aware of still another failure on their part.

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 correct their misunderstanding of what “greatness” is in the kingdom of God.

If the disciples 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. Greatness has nothing to do with power or prestige, but with service.

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. 380 AD), 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. No one is more vulnerable than a child.

Further, a child can do nothing for the disciple; to receive the child is a sacrificial act for someone who is helpless and insignificant; there is no hope for repayment or any 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 an 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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