In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples lessons about Himself and about their lives as His followers. One lesson went right over their heads; the other was impossible for them to miss.
Gospel (Read Mk 9:30-37)
As Jesus traveled around Galilee with His disciples, He made several attempts to help them understand what lay ahead for Him (see also Mk 8:31-32). He was explicit: “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.” They simply could not understand what He was talking about. Can we blame them? A prediction of personal Resurrection like this was completely outside the realm of any human experience. There were no categories into which something like this could fit. So, it is not surprising that the disciples didn’t understand, but doesn’t it surprise us that “they were afraid to question Him”? Did they want to avoid seeming dense in front of each other? Were they a bit embarrassed that, even upon hearing these words for a second time, they had no idea what Jesus meant?
If their silence came from pride, then we can better understand what happens next in this reading. When the entourage reached Capernaum (their home base during their Galilean travels), Jesus asked the disciples a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” He knew the answer, of course, but He gave them an opportunity to confess that they had been arguing about “who was the greatest.” Details like these in the Gospels remind us of their historical authenticity. No one making up a story for the sake of propaganda (often suggested as a reason the apostles wrote the Gospels) would include this witness to the fallible human character of the disciples.
What was Jesus’ response? He didn’t rebuke them for their pettiness and arrogance (as we might have done?). Instead, He simply called them together and gave them the truth: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” In one brief sentence, He turned the world’s idea of “greatness” on its head. Surely the kind of greatness about which the disciples had been arguing was not rooted in humility like this. Were the disciples jockeying for a high rank in the Kingdom of God about which Jesus so often preached? Did they have dreams of power, prestige, and popularity? If so, Jesus’ next act must certainly have stunned them. Taking a child (from the family that housed the group) in His arms, He announced, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My Name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives…the One Who sent Me.” Why did Jesus do this?
When Jesus put the child into His arms, He completely identified Himself with one who was utterly lacking in power, prestige, and popularity. A child is totally dependent on others. He is the very picture of smallness and, as far as the world is concerned, insignificance. This was a profound lesson to the disciples. He was teaching them by example. They were not to look for Him in the high and mighty. That was the way of the world. Instead, He wanted His disciples always to identify with the lowly and powerless. Jesus Himself left Heaven in order to do this for us. He forever wants to be identified and received as such.
Can we imagine any more effective way than this for Jesus to correct the disciples’ foolishness in arguing about their own greatness?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that greatness in Your Kingdom means smallness in this world.
First Reading (Read Wis 2:12, 17-20)
When we read this passage in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, perhaps we will wonder why the disciples were so perplexed by Jesus’ teaching about His own death in the Gospel. Here, there is talk among the “wicked” who plot a torturous death as a test for “the just one” (one who lives in obedience to the Law God gave His people). They are annoyed by the call to accountability from the just one (“he reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training”). This, of course, perfectly describes Jesus and His preaching of the Kingdom of God. The wicked here deride the just one for claiming to be God’s son. They decide to test his “gentleness and try his patience.” They believe that if he really is who he claims to be, “God will take care of him.” If the disciples were familiar with their Scriptures, why didn’t these words come back to them when Jesus spoke of being treated in exactly this way?
It was not so much the idea of Jesus suffering that stumped the disciples. They were well-acquainted with the fate of many of the Old Testament prophets. Even John the Baptist suffered death in his work for God’s kingdom. It was the rising in three days that was lost on them. Ironically, the proof for which the wicked in the Book of Wisdom looked to verify the just one as truly God’s son was deliverance from death. That’s exactly what Jesus predicted for Himself! His Resurrection, although it required Him to pass through death, looking temporarily like God’s desertion and not deliverance, proved that God took “care” of Him. His rising was the defeat of death itself, an eternal deliverance from it.
In time, the disciples would learn that Jesus has passed the “test” of the wicked, but until He actually left the tomb, the meaning of His words were shrouded in mystery—the Book of Wisdom, notwithstanding.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, righteousness always stirs up opposition and, ultimately, malice. Help Your Church not to be afraid of it and to count on Your deliverance.
Psalm (Read Ps 54:3-6, 8)
This psalm speaks prophetically of the trust with which Jesus faced His final “test”: “For the haughty have risen up against Me, the ruthless seek My life.” On the Cross, Jesus was the personification of weakness and powerlessness. He had only the Father’s love as His strength: “O God, by Your Name save me, and by Your might defend My cause.” Recall Jesus encircling the child in His arms. A defenseless child has only his father to protect and deliver him. So it was for Jesus, too. In His willingness to die on our behalf, Jesus “freely” offered His “sacrifice” to His Father. He knew that on the other side of the agony of death, He would live to “praise Your Name, O Lord, for its goodness.” Jesus knew what our responsorial sings out today: “The Lord upholds my life.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (James 3:16-4:3)
St. James gives us practical directions for living the way Jesus described for His disciples in the Gospel: not in the way of the world. St. James shows us that where “jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” We can see why Jesus quizzed the disciples about their “greatness” argument. He wanted to stop the poison before it further infected them. The untamed ego in all of us begins to covet what others have (whether it is possessions, power, primacy, etc.), and when the passions remain unchecked, this leads to wars and conflicts.
What is the way of the disciple? To live in “the wisdom from above” and to sow righteousness in peace, which will bear rich “good fruits.” Self-gratification leads to chaos; self-renunciation leads to peace. No wonder Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (see Mt 5:9).
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I regularly face temptation to selfish ambition—wanting my own way. Please help me choose the wisdom of humility.