Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sept. 24, 2006
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
“Though they failed to understand his words, they were afraid to questions him.”
At first glance we might think that the readings in today’s liturgy have been misplaced. We’re in the middle of Ordinary Time. This is not Lent or, much less, Holy Week. Yet we have readings that speak of Jesus being handed over into the hands of those who would put him to death. And in the reading from the Book of Wisdom we get a picture of the wicked ones planning and plotting to attack the just person and put him to death, to see how his words will stand up.
How does all this fit in?
To answer that question we need to go back to the readings of a couple of weeks ago, which are from the preceding chapter of St. Mark. There we were present at the Transfiguration. The Lord gave the apostles Peter and James and John, and us, a brief glimpse of his real glory hidden under his human nature. But we can be so mesmerized at that scene that we might fail to recall that it was precisely that day, as they were descending the mountain, that he first began to let them in on the way his messiahship would play out. He had told them that he would be handed over and put to death but he would rise on the third day.
At that time the response of the apostles was to talk among themselves about “what to rise from the dead might mean.” The Transfiguration had been a support he offered them, to help them to confront this very disturbing revelation.
They didn’t get it. It was too much of a reversal of all they thought their tradition was telling them. (Indeed the whole of St. Mark’s Gospel in one sense is really the account of how they failed to get it; over and over they misread what they are experiencing.)
So Jesus takes a new tack. He drops all his public appearances and goes off with them into Galilee. He doesn’t want anyone to know where they are because it would distract from the task at hand. He is giving the apostles a private tutoring session – a kind of retreat – because they are going to be the ones who will have to pass on the mystery of who he is.
But even as he is attending to them, we discover that there is a counter-force at work. There is a struggle going on. One of the reasons they can’t really hear what he is trying to tell them is because they are focused on themselves. They’re centered on who’s the most important, who’s going to have the first place. Who’s going to be the big shot when the kingdom is inaugurated.
There’s a barrier to hearing his vision. It’s the mind-set of the world they are surrounded by. And isn’t it the mind-set that continues to shape us today?
What is the message that is screamed at us in every medium every day. Take care of Number One! How much of our advertising is focused on me, me, me? And it’s not even our needs they try to manipulate, it’s our wants. “I want, I want.” They have perfected the technique by having three-and-four-year-olds pestering their parents because “the other kids have XYZ, why can’t I?”
The idea of putting the other person first? That’s for wimps. The world says, “Show me someone whose primary care is to look out for the other – and I’ll show you a loser.”
I saw the epitome of this orientation a few years ago in a report on the evening news. A man asked an architect if he would build him a home. The architect said, “Sure, but what kind of a home do you want?” And the man pointed to his neighbor’s house and said, “Just built me one that’s bigger than his. . .” How focused on yourself can you get?
And this business of taking the last place becomes even more problematic if the other is some sort of nobody.
That’s really what the second part of this Gospel is all about, when Jesus brings the little child into their midst.
When we in today’s world in our country hear reference to a child we bring a ton of modern images to our hearing of the story. We hear ‘child’ and we instinctively think of someone innocent or unspoiled. We have tender , even romanticized associations. When we see a young child it’s almost second-nature to use the word “cute.”
That’s not what a listener to Mark’s Gospel would have heard. Remember, cultural historians tell us that ‘childhood’ is really a recent concept. In Jesus’ time a child was the symbol of someone with no social status; no legal protections. A non-person. You can’t gain anything socially or materially from being with a child. The child has nothing to bring to the table.
And Jesus is telling the apostles and us that he and the Father live in that kind of nobody. If you receive someone of that sort you receive “me and the one who sent me.”
And so we turn once again to the apostles and disciples. How are they receiving all this? Because they are going through the same process that we go through as the Lord leads us ever deeper into the mystery of his messiahship.
They don’t understand – but they are afraid to ask. How frequently we find ourselves in that state with regard to our journey and the Lord’ will for us. They are really a total blank page. They do have an inkling of what his words might mean, otherwise they wouldn’t be afraid. They don’t yet grasp all that it might require of them – but they’re also not really sure they want to know.
Why? Because they are afraid. They fear that if they did get a clear understanding of it all, they would become responsible for their decisions and actions. How often we sense that the Lord is going to ask something of us and we’re afraid because we don’t think we will be able to respond.
What might it mean, what might it cost, to be “the last of all and the servant of all” – for me? For you? And who are those “children” – ‘nobodies’ you or I might be called to attend to and place before my interests? The ones always overlooked, in our families or places of work or in our society, the ones who don’t know how to speak for themselves. Might the Lord be calling me or you to become an advocate for them, to be a voice for the voiceless?
We tense up at the prospect. We are afraid.
We need to remind ourselves once again of that deep recurring theme running through all of Jesus’ ministry and dealings with his disciples: Fear not! Do not be afraid! As we stand with these early disciples and wonder just what it might really cost to follow this kind of a messiah – to pass through death to life – we need to hear those other words of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you and you will find that my yoke is sweet and my burden light.” Can we trust him when he says things like that, that we will really be able to face the implications of our baptism?
And yet how often the truth of his promise is borne out in experience. How often have we heard someone tell us, “The one thing I dreaded above all turned out to be a great blessing in my life?”
People confront the loss of a job, or the death of a spouse or a child, or who knows what all else, and they discover interior resources they never knew they had. They come through this form of death and find themselves richer in their humanity and more able to stand with their neighbors as they pass through the fire?
We need to pray for that kind of trust, to allow ourselves to be handed over with him, as he feeds us with the bread of life.