The Gospel Reading for September 20th, 2015: “The Second Prediction of the Passion” and “The Greatest in the Kingdom”
Mark 9: 30-37
They left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
As I think about the reflections I have written so far for Peace in the Word, I recognize I have frequently come back to the central theme that our salvation is very much tied to carrying the cross for Jesus, or more plainly, enduring suffering in this life with faith and hope. My preoccupation with this theme is probably because I did not experience a true conversion until mid-life, and prior to that conversion much of my life was focused on the avoidance of suffering. I don’t think I am unique among humans or Christians in my difficulty in accepting this truth. Acceptance of the need for suffering goes against that baser part of us which clings to self-preservation, and in the end to sinfulness. So it is not surprising that Jesus’s mission on Earth ends with His free acceptance of death on the cross to teach us its truth in the most radical way possible.
In today’s gospel, I see divine genius in Jesus’s preparing the Apostles for the coming of this Easter lesson to which they will be witnesses. He first tells them plainly of His arrest, death, and resurrection, knowing full well they are not ready to comprehend it, which they do not (31-32). He is merely planting seeds in their minds so that when they see it they will grasp its significance.
Next, the apostles drift in to a discussion of who among them is the greatest, which demonstrates powerfully they have yet to fully understand the humility of the cross. And yet, their silence when Jesus asks about this conversation suggests to me on some level their consciences were telling them this should not be the concern of Christ’s followers. Jesus, for His part, brings them back from this digression without scolding, as good teachers often do, and inserts a new, more poetic wording of the lesson that draws on the Mystery of the Cross. He says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (33-35). This point is still difficult to grasp, but like so much of God’s Word in the Bible, its mystery invites further rumination on its meaning. Even though we may struggle to understand, His words stay on our minds and continue speak to our souls.
Finally, Jesus, the model teacher, gives the apostles a more concrete example. He shows them one child and says receive her in my name, and you will receive the Father in Heaven (36-37). Children are the powerless of the society. That was true then as it is true now. They depend on adults to love and care for them. Every parent knows that despite the occasional moments of charm, the love for a child requires an unselfishness that clearly distinguishes itself from romantic love. In their best moments, parents and caregivers willing suffer in the care of children. When we embrace unselfish love of the powerless, we are embracing the call of Jesus to serve others without thought of compensation or personal gain. We deny ourselves and help carry the cross. Like the apostles we can understand this example because in growing up I dare say every child has experienced adults who treat them with unselfish care and those who take advantage of their powerlessness; and in their hearts, he or she knows which treatment is right and true.
In His perfect model found in this passage, we can take away specific guidance for embracing the Mystery of the Cross. When we share God’s word, whether it is in plain truth or poetry, we leave a trace of Him that penetrates the hearts of those who hear, even if only for the future. And every time we treat the powerless among us, be him child or poor or wounded or the infirm, we are embracing God’s call to love thy neighbor, the simplest expression of carrying the cross for Christ.