“Jesus calls us all to greatness”
by Maja Drapiewski
Today I would like to focus on the last part of the passage where Mark recalls Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples when he caught them arguing who among them is the greatest. As a mother this is very close to my heart as it is a really childlike argument. Naturally the disciples would have thought that the greatest person would have the attributes such as strength, intellect, popularity, money, skill or even age. But no, Jesus explains that to be the greatest they have to make themselves the smallest, the humblest. It is a complete reversal of their thinking, Jesus literally says that the way up is down.
I suspect our thinking is not very different today. We want to be the best at things, first in line, to have power. Who can honestly say they want to be ‘last and a servant of all’? But Jesus calls us all to greatness and with everyday act of kindness and by being humble in all we do we can achieve just that. Jesus himself is a role model for us as he came not to be served but to serve, as we read in Matthew 20:28.
As a further example Jesus places a small child in front of his disciples. Children had very low social status, only above the slaves, and were totally dependent on their guardians. You couldn’t possibly get more vulnerable. We learn that to receive such a child in His name means to welcome Jesus himself and by extension acting on behalf of God, being his disciple. This part of the Gospel is also a symbol for charity, a child a symbol of the disabled, homeless, hungry and poor. By being open to those who are worse off than us, be welcoming them into our society, by giving them a hand in times of need we get closer to God and our ‘greatness’ grows. So many of the God’s Saints give us the best example of how to embrace all such children. We don’t have to look any further that St. Mother Theresa, St. John Bosco or St. Vincent de Paul.
I will conclude with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Let us have charity and humility, and give alms, for almsgiving cleanses our souls from the filth of sin. At death we lose all that we have in this world, but we take with us charity and the alms-deeds we have done, and for these we shall receive a great reward from God.’
Scripture readings: Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
Reflections and Prayers by Fr Jack Finnegan SDB
1st Reading – Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
The godless say to themselves:
‘Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us
and opposes our way of life,
reproaches us for our breaches of the law
and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing.
‘Let us see if what he says is true,
let us observe what kind of end he himself will have.
If the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part
and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.
Let us test him with cruelty and with torture,
and thus explore this gentleness of his
and put his endurance to the proof.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death
since he will be looked after – we have his word for it.’
In effect, chapter 2 of Wisdom explores two pursuits: the pursuit of selfish goals (2:1-11) and the pursuit of wisdom (2:12-17). Both have consequences. What is gained by the pursuit of selfish goals if not destruction? Instead, the pursuit of wisdom leads to patience and justice. Who is the just one? Why do people want to do the just one harm? Why do they revile and torture him or her? Why do they plot the just one’s death? That our passage from Wisdom 2 refers to Jesus is quite clear, but it also refers to anyone who seeks to live a life of integrity, a faith-based, caring, gentle life in places dominated by angry and critical voices, or worse, voices of violence and terror. This is especially so when cynical or violent people set out, often in the name of freedom, to silence and destroy the voices of wisdom and justice in the land. In a society where selfish greed and violence prevail justice and wisdom are easily trampled underfoot. However, as St Bonaventure reminds us, the Christian life always demands justice towards the other. How easy is it to stand for justice and to seek to live wisely today? How easy is it to speak harsh and cynical words? How much intelligence does it take to oppose goodness?
LORD, Adonai, grant me the wisdom that sits by your throne. Let Lady Wisdom teach me the ways of peace and integrity. Lead me away from selfish goals. Teach me how to support men and women who seek to live a lives of integrity, faith-based, caring lives in dangerous places. Open me more and more to the ways of gentleness and sincerity in an often unpredictable and violent world. Protect me from those who would do me harm today, those with dark intentions in my regard. Help me to live like Jesus. Give me the courage to stand for what is right and true and just today, to do something beautiful for you and for my neighbours. Do not bring me to the test but deliver me from evil. Amen.
Psalm 54:3-6, 8
Psalm 54 is one of many prayers for help in the psalter. Trust in God lies at its heart. But in a world of violence, terror and cruelty it is hard to trust that God will make everything right. Many innocent and just people die. Nevertheless, the Just One cries out to God for help against arrogant, treacherous people. O God, hear my prayer; listen to the words of my mouth. Can you share in the just one’s confidence in the power of prayer, in the power of God’s Name? The lesson the poet wants to teach is that God is the helper of the just one, and his or her proper response is gratitude and praise, love and active, caring compassion even in a world that tries to thwart God’s loving purposes. Can you glimpse here the promise of Christ’s resurrection? Notice how the poet focuses first on God’s Name, then on the just one’s need before raising the question of treachery: the ruthless seek my life. Have you ever been betrayed? Have you ever had your generosity exploited by two-faced people? Are you sowing peace and reconciliation?
LORD, Adonai, as I listen to the song of the Just One my heart cries out. So many people are being tried and tested today, even members of my own family and circle of friends. Help us as we try to deal with arrogant and two-faced people. Make us gentle and open-hearted with those fleeing violence and oppression. Be our helper today, listen to our plea! Defend the cause of right. Protect us from treachery. Defend all who seek to walk in the ways of justice and peace. Help us live lives of compassion in a world so often opposed to your loving purposes. Teach us the ways of trust, love and hope. Now and forever. Amen.
2nd Reading – James 3:16-4:3
Wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done; whereas the wisdom that comes down from above is essentially something pure; it also makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate; it is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good; nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness.
Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? You want something and you haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. Why you don’t have what you want is because you don’t pray for it; when you do pray and don’t get it, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.
Notice the stark contrast between wisdom and jealousy. Where jealousy reigns, ambition, disorder, violence and every appalling practice reigns. Where wisdom reigns peace, mercy and integrity of every kind blossom and flourish. Biblical love is wise because it is primarily intelligent, something reasonable, something we choose to do, a commitment. It is not a passing fancy or a whim. There is nothing selfish in it. Today we are invited to reflect on the stark difference between heavenly and earthly wisdom, the one peaceful the other violent. Love builds peace. The loving wisdom from God leads us to peace and integrity; the other way leads to envy and death. The choice is ours. Choose love and be wise.
Lord Jesus, how I desire to walk in the gentle, caring ways of the wisdom heart, how I long to be freed of envy and jealousy in my life. Free me from the disorders that envy and jealousy bring. Help me choose the ways of peace, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Help me recognise the power of selfish reactions in my life. Help me notice when social and cultural conditioning is at work. Let me not be at war with myself or with any of my neighbours. Let me be your friend in all I do and say today and every day. Make me a channel of your peace and a servant of your loving mercy. Amen.
Gospel Reading – Mark 9: 30-37
Jesus and his disciples made their way through Galilee; and he did not want anyone to know, because he was instructing his disciples; he was telling them, ‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him.
They came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ They said nothing because they had been arguing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’ He then took a little child, set him in front of them, put his arms round him, and said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
There are two lessons in today’s gospel. The first has to do with Jesus telling his disciples for the second time what will happen in Jerusalem: his suffering and death, the consequences of the choices he has made. But are the disciples listening? It would seem not. None of them even raise a question about it. They continue to show a lack of faith. And therein lies the second lesson: for on the way (a technical term for being a disciple in Mark) they had been discussing among themselves who was the greatest! They had fallen prey to the easy temptations of power and ambition. But Jesus presents them with a stark contrast, another of his paradoxes, a child and a servant: the last of all, the ones with neither rank nor status. As Jesus sees it, there is no social privilege in being a true disciple. Do we notice how faith and unbelief wrestle with each other in the lives of disciples today? Do we encounter self-referred ambition among them today? Do we find careerists in the Church? Looking around, do you think that maybe God is doing something about it?
Lord Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem you spoke for the second time to your disciples of your coming passion and death. But those who were closest to you were not listening. What you were saying did not fit their frames of reference. Their faith was weak and they were touched by fear. How easy it is for me to remain wrapped up in my own concerns and purposes! Do I ever really listen to you? Do I ever understand what you are saying? Do I ever recognise my own illusions? Am I too absorbed in my own wants and desires, my own weaknesses and fears? Teach me the lesson of the little child. Teach me the lesson of the servant. Teach me the lesson of saving by losing. Teach me to be wise in all my ways. Teach me how, humbly, intentionally and lovingly, to let you be Lord. Now and forever. Amen.
This gospel passage comes halfway through Jesus’ public ministry, while Jesus is preaching the Kingdom of God in the villages of Galilee. He takes a bit of time to instruct his disciples, and makes use of these more intimate moments to announce his tragic death and foretell his resurrection. Jesus nearly always speaks in parables to the people but he prefers to use more direct and concrete language when speaking to those who share his journey and his preaching. He informs them in advance of his tragic and painful end and his final victory. Those who accompanied him had to know that the Lord was leading them towards a violent death, followed by life without end.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
As he heads towards Jerusalem, Jesus announces his death for the second time. He does so with the utmost brevity (Mk 9, 31). Peter’s failure to understand was shared by all the disciples to whom this teaching was addressed (Mk 9, 32).
The episode took place in Galilee. Jesus was travelling incognito because he did not want people to know where he was going. He was concerned for the time being only with his disciples (Mk 9, 30), teaching them on their own in the house (Mk 9, 33). The report tells of yet another encounter between Jesus and his disciples (Mk 9, 30-50), in which we find a collection of Jesus’ discourses on various topics relating to discipleship: about seeking the first place (Mk 9,33-37); the case of the exorcist who, though he was not a disciple, called into question the following of Jesus (Mk 9, 38-41); the question of scandal given to the little ones (Mk 9, 42-48); and the description of authentic discipleship (Mk 9, 49-50). What Jesus has in mind as he proceeds to Jerusalem is not what his followers are thinking. It is dramatic to discover that is it possible for a disciple to follow Jesus his whole life, and yet not understand him.
The evangelist reports only what Jesus says (Mk 9, 22.214.171.124). What the disciples have to say is not deemed worthy of inclusion. In the evangelist’s scheme, the episode has a precise purpose. To show clearly the difference between Jesus’ aims and those of his followers, Mark describes the distance in attitude that separates the Master from his disciples. Jesus continues, freely but resolutely, on the road that leads to the cross, while the disciples are squabbling among themselves and trying to gain positions of privilege. Rarely has the Son of Man been so alone, so far from those who were accompanying him. They continue in their mistaken dreams for the future, still seeking the first place. But following him means serving, right to the end. Jesus’ teaching is directed exclusively to the disciples (Mk 9, 30), but still it seems his efforts are in vain. His disciples do not understand and they are afraid to ask (Mk 9, 33). They remain silent when questioned, because they are ashamed to tell Jesus what they had been talking about as they were walking along (Mk 9, 34).
Jesus sat down, as was customary for a teacher, called the twelve to him, and gave them a double lesson – first of all in the form of a general rule (Mk 9, 35), and then by means of a symbolic action which he explains immediately (Mk 9, 36-37). Service and welcome of the lowliest are the qualities that are to characterize his closest followers. This is also what is expected of the reader of the Gospel if he or she wants to be considered a faithful disciple.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
It is hard to know whether to marvel more at the courage with which Jesus speaks of his death, and the clarity with which he foresees his death, or the inability of the disciples to understand the prophetic words of their Master. It is difficult for us today to understand why the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus the meaning of what he said. His concern was to prepare them for the approaching trial, while they were busy arguing about which of them would have the first place. Jesus was thinking about the cross and the suffering that inevitably awaited him, while the disciples were squabbling over the honours they hoped to achieve. He, their Master, was thinking of giving his life while they, the servants, were thinking about becoming lords and masters. How could they understand what the Master was saying to them? How could they help feeling afraid to admit to him what they were arguing about? The idea of a Master who is journeying willingly towards his death goes completely against the disciples’ understanding of life. A leader who foretells his tragic end can only lead his followers to ruin. It did not seem right to follow Christ if he was going to hand himself over to his enemies.
As on so many other occasions, we can see ourselves in those disciples. Like them, we are unable to comprehend Christ’s teaching about the cross, or to understand a Master who goes forward, knowing the disaster that awaits him. Like them, we are more concerned about our own fate than that of the Lord Jesus. Like those first disciples, we live with the illusion that we can reach positions of honour that he never held, or we lay a snare for the brother who has attained some honour we could never reach.
We Christians today, as in the past, do not understand Jesus Christ because we do not accept in our hearts the journey of the cross. We go ahead with our own fears, trying to follow Jesus but not facing up to the truth, because we pay more attention to the desires of our own hearts than those of the heart of our Master. We become more and more petty-minded, dreaming of honours and privileges we will never enjoy.
Seeking honour and privilege serves only to make us poorer and more disadvantaged. If we think more of what we want than what we can give, we increase our hunger for power. If, on the other hand, we think of what we can give to others (a little of our time, a smile, our attention, our good wishes, our simple, practical, concrete daily life) then we will be happy. We will understand better the Jesus we follow, and we will not be afraid to follow him more closely.
It was not merely by chance that Jesus took a little child as an example and model of the best disciple. He placed the child before the twelve to let them see how their lives should be. Children had no privileges in the time of Jesus. Like the poor, they belonged to the least protected group of people in society. A child depends totally on others just to survive, and Jesus chose a child as a clear example of discipleship, the model with which all disciples should identify. This teaching of Jesus is not easy. We live in a world where power dominates, and the hero is the one who arrives first or goes furthest.
Today the disciples of Jesus are distancing themselves from him. They do not listen to his teaching, and consequently they consider it failure if they are poor, or shameful if they are weak. Today, as in the past, we lack the courage to go against the tide in order to live in the world as disciples, following a Master who walks deliberately towards his destiny. And yet, we know that if we live our lives for others, we will recover them for ever. We will be deemed worthy of the Lord who died on the cross and who lives for ever. Only in this way can we learn to live, not just with him, but like him.