Sunday, September 20, 2009

If You Seek To Be First In God's Kingdom, Become The Last Of All And The Servant Of All

The Book of Wisdom was composed by a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria in Egypt, about a century before the coming of Christ. The author, who wrote in Greek, often speaks in the person of Solomon, placing his teachings on the lips of the wise king of Hebrew tradition to emphasize their value.

The second chapter of Wisdom, from which today’s First Reading is taken (Wisdom 2:12, 17-20) is a prophecy of the passion of Christ. Wicked and ungodly conspirators plot against the righteous one, seeking to silence him, because he is obnoxious to them. He reproaches them for transgressions of God’s law, and of not following a proper way of life.

They say: Let us see whether his words are true, and that will decide his fate. If he is truly the son of God, He will defend him, and deliver him from his enemies. Let us revile and torture him, to test his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, since, according to his own words, God will take care of him.

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Today’s Second Reading (James 3:16 – 4:3) follows the same theme, contrasting “earthly wisdom” with “wisdom from above”. Earthly wisdom is founded on the principle that human intelligence and will should guide our decisions and actions. There is no question of guidance from above, because earthly wisdom is atheistic or agnostic: Either God does not exist, or God is irrelevant. Instead of resolving issues, it worsens disagreements, and causes further confusion.

James teaches that true wisdom comes from above. He lists seven principles to describe true wisdom:

• Pure: It has no selfish ambitions. It is holy, as God is holy.

• Peaceful: It gathers people together, and brings them closer to God.

• Gentle: It is fair and kind. It is patient with human weakness; it is ready to help, not to blame.

• Compliant: It is not self-centred, but is willing to listen to other opinions.

• Merciful: It helps those who are in need, is sympathetic to those who are sad; it seeks the good of all.

• Constant: It does not act out of prejudice. It does not make class distinctions.

• Sincere: It is honest. It does not seek its own benefit at the expense of others.

The first part of today’s reading concludes with a saying of James that has become a proverb in its own right: The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace. Peace means a right relationship with others and with God. If this is not the case, there can be no real righteousness.

In the second part of the reading, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” The question could be addressed to any assembly of Christians from the 1st century to the 21st. In fact, the answer has been the same from the time Moses received the Tablets of the Law from God on Mount Sinai. Some covet other people’s possessions, or other people’s spouses. Some kill to obtain what they want, but are still not satisfied. God says, “Ask and you shall receive”, but sometimes people do not receive what they pray for. They ask God to give them what they ask for because their motive is not to please God or to perform a good deed on behalf of someone else, but to serve their own selfish, sometimes evil, desires.

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Today’s Gospel is taken from the Book of Mark (9:30-37).

The time when Jesus was teaching publicly in Jerusalem was coming to an end. He and his disciples were travelling through Galilee on their way back to Capernaum, but Jesus did not want people to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples about what was going to be happening to him: "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise again."

The disciples did not understand what Jesus had told them, but they were too frightened to ask him to explain. Earlier, he had told them that he would be arrested and would have to suffer. They opposed that idea, and Jesus had scolded them for their lack of faith (Mark 8:32-33). Perhaps they did not to risk another reprimand; or else, they might have learned something even more disturbing, something they preferred not to know.

It might have been that some disciples were envious of Peter, James and John, who had been alone with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured in their sight. But all of them still had in mind that Jesus would found an earthly kingdom, and would give them important positions in his realm. When he told them that he would be handed over to men, who would torture and kill him, they did not listen. They were holding on to their more pleasant notions about the Messiah’s purpose, but they kept quiet, since they were ashamed to tell Jesus what they thought, and fearful of the consequences if they asked him further questions.

When they came back to Capernaum, once inside the house, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way here?” They did not answer. They had been talking about which one of them would have the highest position, when Jesus came into his kingdom. Then Jesus sat down at the table. Jewish teachers sat to teach their students. The fact that Jesus sat down indicated that he was going to teach his disciples a lesson: If they wanted greatness in his kingdom, they must not seek the most important place. Instead, they must be willing to serve the needs of everyone else.

To underline the need for service, Jesus enacted a parable. He took a little child and had him stand among them. Children have no power, and are totally dependent on help from adults. The disciples of Jesus must serve even little children. But, in the gospel, when Jesus speaks of “children”, he intends to include everyone who is weak or in need of assistance.

Taking the child in his arms, Jesus says to his disciples: "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me." When Jesus says, “in my name”, he means “on my behalf, and with my authority”. Humble service to God’s people is service to God himself. And whoever serves God well will be richly rewarded.

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