The godless say to themselves,
"Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God's child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected."
O God, save me by your name;
by your power, uphold my cause.
O God, hear my prayers;
listen to the words of my mouth. (R.)
For proud men have risen against me,
ruthless men seek my life.
They have no regard for God. (R.)
But I have God for my help.
The Lord upholds my life.
I will sacrifice to you with willing heart
and praise your name for it is good. (R.)
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your ravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
The first reading today sounds like one of the Psalms that are applied to the story of Christ's passion or like one of the Servant songs in Isaiah. But in reality it comes from one of the latest books in the Bible, composed not in Hebrew but in Greek, in Alexandria (and not contained in the original Hebrew Bible). The situation of the righteous man who is insulted, tortured, or executed is one that is not confined to special religious texts; it is a situation that arises at all times. So the passion and death of Jesus, which he predicts to his disciples for the second time today, is not in itself an extraordinary destiny.
Many people suffer worse and longer torture, detained for years in solitary confinement for example, and more painful and degrading deaths. Many are unjustly condemned and never vindicated, unlike Jesus. That Jesus dies as a martyr is again not something absolutely unique. Many people have been prepared to lay down their lives to resist injustice and oppression.What makes the passion of Christ unique is its saving role, expressed a little further on in Mark's Gospel in words that may well come from the lips of the historical Jesus himself: "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Some people today find the idea of the death of Jesus as a saving sacrifice, an atonement, to be objectionable, and it is caricatured as showing a cruel God torturing his son in order to avenge himself on humankind. We need to put aside such reaction to let the message of salvation claim our hearts and our minds. Jesus's life befits a Messiah, bringing healing and enlightenment to all. But his death brings salvation to the whole human race. God does not punish but grants healing and salvation to all by allowing his beloved Son to enter so deeply into our suffering, including the suffering people inflict on one another, and including the ultimate failure of death and dishonour. If we embrace the Messiah that God sets before us we will find also that the divine vindication of this Messiah, who is raised up from death, also becomes credible.
The minds of the disciples are completely elsewhere. The question that bothers them in their discussion is which of them will have the highest place in the Kingdom. It even gives rise to a quarrel. It is easy to laugh at them, but the laugh is on us. Called to follow Christ, we worry about tiny advantages and securities as if Christ never was. Jesus appeals to the disciples' ambition: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Indeed Jesus often appeals to our low level of thinking to inspire us with the ambition of imitating him, who came "not to be served, but to serve" (Mk 10:45).
"Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'" Today a wave of refugees sweeps across Europe. When we welcome these children we welcome the Son of Man, who had "nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58), and in welcoming him we are welcoming God back into our dessicated lives. To welcome the suffering multitudes is also to welcome the Cross, and to discover its saving power, first shown in the community of love that it creates.
St Mark traces the profile of Jesus as a strange and disconcerting Messiah. That is what Jesus was in reality for Peter and, as we know, Mark echoes the catechesis of Peter and his itinerary of discovery of the Messiah. The emphasis throughout is on the newness and originality of Jesus in the context of human history. He is on an entirely different level compared with the traditional teaching of the Scribes and Rabbis, and, even, the Law itself, because of the sublimity of his message. Beside him, all else is second-rate or old-fashioned.
The life of Jesus unfolds as an enigma at the centre of which lie his Passion and death. That he comes from a modest, unpretentious background, that he presents himself without rank or title, without wealth or backing, that he makes no effort to command everybody's obeisance by means of some great cosmic sign -- all of these are already disconcerting enough. All limits are exceeded, however, when he announces a most sinister ending of his life as being on the way. He is going to allow himself to be arrested, insulted and crucified like a common criminal. This enigma can be articulated in two great rhetorical questions that dominate the
Gospel: who is Jesus? (from 1:14 up to Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, 8:30) and Where is he going? (from 8:22 to 16:8). The answer -- that he is the Son of God -- runs through the entire Gospel, but somewhat like an under-surface stream that cannot be heard unless one listens attentively, as, for example, when Jesus holds up the little child.
When a pope or bishop takes a little baby from its mother's arms to raise it above the crowd, he is repeating what was a significant gesture of Jesus. It is not just a demonstration of the kindly nature of a good man; it is a sure sign of the Kingdom and an indication of the kind of Messiah that Jesus was proclaiming himself to be. By this gesture, Jesus expresses the absolute newness that he himself is. In our ordinary world, deference would be given to grown-ups; Jesus gives it to the child. What is it in the child that merits this? Surely, it is that the child is an explosion of joy and life, is full of spontaneity and confidence, is without deviousness and mental reservations, and has the freshness of the dawn or the fountain-head. The child is like Springtime, like the rising sun, the bearer of the future. The child sparkles and makes everyone else sparkle, even the one with the murkiest face.
The Messiah is not to be a prince or a hero in worldly terms. Rather, A child is born to us (Is 9, 5.) His first appearance is in swaddling clothes. The Son of God wished to be born, to live and to die as a child, innocent and unsuspecting, poor and dependent, because the Father's House is the Kingdom of children. Unless we become as little children, we cannot enter it. What a disconcerting Messiah Jesus is! He never ceases to astonish us. The child, the Messiah -- and the Father, what a trinity! Another case of Like Father, like Son.
One would really expect better of the disciples. Although they had spent so much of their time in the company of Jesus, saw so much of his behaviour and heard so much of his preaching they were still wide of the mark in their understanding of greatness and service. Jesus himself set the pattern of real service: "though he was in the form of God.. he emptied himself, assuming the condition of a slave" (Phil. 2:6f.) In the Gospel of Mark Jesus predicts his passion three times within quite a short period of time. The first is in chapter eight (8:31-33) and takes place in Caesarea Philippi just after Peter's profession of faith which was our Gospel last Sunday. The second is today's reading from chapter nine (9:30-32) in Galilee just after the healing of the dumb demoniac. The third comes in chapter ten (10:32-34) on the road to Jerusalem just after the teaching about leaving everything for the sake of the Gospel.
These three predictions of the passion have been compared to the solemn tolling of a bell. Jesus is in the thick of his ministry but is progressing irrevocably towards Jerusalem where all was to be brought to fulfilment. Of these three accounts the one we have today is the simplest and for this reason is regarded as the most primitive. In each case the disciples misunderstand what Jesus is telling them. But they realise that things are slowly coming to a head and they want to be part of it, that's surely why they were arguing about who was the greatest. The disciples are slow on the uptake but gradually they begin to get the message. This news about a forthcoming passion is hard for them to grasp and that's why Jesus repeats it on several occasions.
We gather here in this Church week by week, we come here because of our faith and we do so in order to pray and worship God together. We are Christ's disciples in the world today we are trying our level best to live the way he wants us to live, we try to refrain from struggling for position, we try to live out the prescriptions of the Gospel in our daily lives. We know that we frequently fail, but with the help of God we pick ourselves up and start again in the knowledge that we are moving towards the goal for which we long so much.
If anyone wants to be first he must make himself last of all and servant of all. This teaching is at the heart of the Gospel. It is Jesus' recipe for discipleship. But be careful and notice what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean a Uriah Heep sort of humility. It doesn't mean putting yourself down all the time. It doesn't mean baseness before others. But the actual text says that Jesus wants us to be the servant of all. This sounds like a bit of a tall order but it is actually all of a piece with serving Jesus. Our master gave his life for the whole human race. He valued each and every creature, he served even the lowest of the low. He did so not always in the way they expected but he changed their lives and through his actions enabled them to live in a new and better way. So we should do no less. To put it at its simplest we serve others in the way Jesus serves us.
We can all struggle at times to listen to someone if what they say arouses painful emotions in us. They might be trying to tell us something about ourselves that we find difficult to hear. That very human tendency is reflected in the disciples in today's gospel. Jesus had something very important to say about what was about to happen to him. In the words of the gospel, he was telling them that he would find himself in the hands of others, who would put him to death. This was something that the disciples found very hard to hear and were not able to take on board. As the gospel says, 'they did not understand what he said and they were afraid to ask him.' Already in Mark's gospel Jesus told them what was likely to happen to him. They were no more open to hearing it the second time than they were the first. They did not understand it and they were reluctant to question him because they were afraid they might not be able to live with the answers he would give them. In some ways that is a very human reaction. We often find ourselves not willing to ask questions because we suspect that we would struggle to live with the answers to our questions.
Yet, in our heart of hearts, we often recognize that there are certain realities we have to face, even if they are painful to face. There are certain illusions we may have to let go of, even if we have come to cherish them. In the second part of today's gospel Jesus worked to disillusion his disciples, in that good sense. He needed to prise them away from the illusions of greatest that they harboured. They seemed to have thought that being part of Jesus' circle would bring them privilege and status. No sooner had Jesus spoken of himself as someone who would end up as one of the least than the disciples began to argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. They wanted power and, it seems, that they wanted power for its own sake. This is the kind of self-centred ambition that James talks about in the second reading when he says, 'you have an ambition that you cannot satisfy, so you fight to get your way by force.' In place of that very worldly ambition, Jesus places before his disciples a very different kind of ambition, an ambition that has the quality of what James in that reading refers to as 'the wisdom that comes down from above.' This is God's ambition for their lives and for all our lives. It is the ambition to serve, as Jesus says in the gospel, 'those who want to be first must make themselves last of all and servant of all.' This ambition to serve, again in the words of James in that second reading, is something that 'makes for peace and is kindly and considerate; it is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good.'
Jesus implies that this is to be our primary ambition as his followers. All our other ambitions have to be subservient to that God-inspired ambition. In his teaching of his disciples and of us all, Jesus carefuls on his teaching by performing a very significant action. He takes a little child and sets the child in front of his disciples, puts his arms around the child and declares that whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes him and not only him but God the Father who sent him. Jesus was saying by that action that the ambition to serve must give priority to the most vulnerable members of society, symbolized by the child who is completely dependent on adults for his or her well being. Our ambition is to serve those who, for one reason or another, are not in a position to serve themselves. Jesus goes, assuring his disciples and us that in serving the most vulnerable we are in fact serving him. In the presence of the disciples who seemed consumed with an ambition for power for its own sake Jesus identifies himself with the powerless, those who are most dependent on our care. Over against the ambition of the disciples to serve themselves, Jesus puts the ambition to serve him as he comes to us in and through the weakest members of society. In our gospel Jesus is putting before us what his family of disciples, what the church, is really about.