First reading: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Responsorial Psalm: 53(54):3-6, 8
Second reading: James 3:16 – 4:3
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
Link to readings.
As far as the Gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37), is concerned we are now at that point of Mark’s Gospel where the whole focus lies upon Jesus’ attempt to educate his disciples about his coming fate in Jerusalem. They now know that he is the Messiah (8:29) but cling to the conventional understanding of the role: a ruler of David’s line who would triumphantly restore the fortunes of Israel. They find it very difficult to set that understanding together with Jesus’ insistence, heard again in today’s Gospel, that he is to be betrayed and put to death. They do not fully understand what he is saying and they are afraid to ask him.
Their fear is not lack of confidence to question Jesus but fear of what he might more plainly reveal. They half know what he is saying and, in an understandably human way, shrink from full knowledge of the unpalatable truth. They prefer to cling to the hopes and exciting prospect for themselves that being close associates of the Messiah as conventionally understood would entail.
This, presumably, has been the subject of their discussion on the road. They have been arguing about which of them would have the top roles and positions of honour in the coming messianic kingdom.
Nothing in fact could be more at odds with what Jesus has been attempting to communicate than such disputes about greatness. When, doubtless with some awareness, he questions them about the subject of their argument on the road, they guiltily remain silent; they know – or at least half-know – how inappropriate such talk is.
SERVANT OF ALL
So Jesus decides to dramatise the instruction. Insisting that the one who would be first must be last and servant of all, he takes a child from the house and sets it in front of them all. Then putting his arms around the child, he makes an extraordinary statement of self-identification: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’ (v 37).
To appreciate the full force of Jesus’ action, we have to put aside the idealisation of childhood that arose in the 19th century. In the ancient world children were precious, no doubt, to their parents, but had no social status or value whatsoever; until adulthood they were nobodies. For someone outside the family to ‘welcome’ a child would be to turn prevailing values and social mores upside down; it would require putting aside all one’s ideas of self-importance and adult status, and simply meeting the child as an equal, as ‘child’ to child. That, says Jesus, is what the disciples must practice – because in so doing they will be welcoming him and the Father who stands behind his entire life and mission, which is not one of dominance and being served but one of service, destined to culminate in the supreme ‘service’ of the cross (10:45).
PRECIOUSNESS OF LIFE
Not only, then, does Jesus’ gesture challenge the disciples’ notion of messiahship. It goes to the heart of their – and our – understanding of God. Is God to be thought of as an extra-terrestial supreme Ruler to whom nothing but fear and service is due? Or is the God revealed by Jesus a God whose primary gesture towards human beings is that of One who serves, One who comes among us in the guise of a child? Jesus’ gesture of hugging the child in front of all shows more powerfully than any words could express the preciousness of each and every human life, no matter how small, how insignificant, in the sight of God. We are all – in our ‘littleness’ rather than our achievement – hugged by Jesus in this moment.
The challenge to worldly values and estimation that the disciples found so difficult confronts the Church in every age. After the early centuries of persecution the leaders of the Church emerged from the catacombs at the time of Constantine to take on many of the trappings and roles of Roman officials. We are now witnessing the end of that ‘Constantinian Church,’ the Church where leaders are accorded honours and tributes more reflective of worldly power than the way of Jesus. The sexual abuse crisis hammered the last nail into the coffin of that church. The pain that goes along with this stripping of status and honour is close to that experienced by the disciples of Jesus as they struggled both to hear and to resist what he was saying. Like them, we are all on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus.
The Second Reading, James 3:16-4:3, appropriately enough approaches the same issue of power and ambition in the uncompromising language typical of this letter.
The First Reading, Wisdom 2:12, 17-20, anticipates the mockery and taunting Jesus will hear upon the cross.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media