Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2009
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
When I began to proclaim the Gospel this morning you might have found yourself wondering, “Didn’t we hear this same proclamation from Jesus last Sunday? Maybe there’s been a mistake and they’re reading the wrong reading?”
No, you’re right. You did hear the same prediction from Jesus last Sunday, but it wasn’t a mistake. Jesus actually makes the same prediction of his passion and death three times within this section of Mark’s Gospel. Last week we heard how he turned a significant corner in his mission. He’s leaving behind his early preaching mission in Galilee and making his way up to Jerusalem to proclaim a message that will challenge and upset the religious leaders there. And at the same time he’s changing his relationship to his disciples. Peter had reached the insight that Jesus was the messiah, but now Jesus is calling the disciples to go deeper, to turn their understanding of messiah upside down.
And by the selection of these readings during ‘ordinary time’ – outside of the traditional Holy Week, where we expect it (and, incidentally, can therefore domesticate it) – the church is doing the same thing. We are being asked to examine who we think Jesus really is. What does ‘messiah’ mean? Where do we put our faith?
As Messiah Jesus is surely in some sense a liberator, a savior. But once again today we are reminded that he is also “The Way” and that way involves a total contradiction to the way the world around us views things. Embracing Jesus the Way will involve a difficult conversion. Not just in our behavior but in our way of thinking. About ourselves. About the world we live in. About what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. And ultimately about our God.
The message is so difficult to appreciate that it has to be repeated over and over. Because the contrasting message is so powerful and has all the resources of our society and culture to imprint itself in our psyches.
It can help if we see how it operates in a situation that might seem to be so remote as to have nothing in common with the world of today.
The author of the Book of Wisdom takes us back to a Jewish community living outside of Palestine. They are in Egypt. In Alexandria, in fact, only about a century before Jesus’ time.
They’re people of the Covenant, trying to live out their beliefs in the midst of a culture that is very different from that of their origins. Alexandria is one of the great cities of the near East. It’s cosmopolitan. Developed. A place of learning and sophistication. Its great library is one of the seven wonders of the world. This is where the movers and shakers hang out. In today’s language we would call it ‘modern.’
It creates a challenge: how do you remain a good Jew, a believer, in a culture that rejects most of what you consider important? How do we confront modernity?
Sounds a lot like our situation today, doesn’t it? We live in a world that considers faith just the sad remnant of the foolish superstitions of our grandparents. Why use any energy over this ‘God’ business? It will only be a short time before it all fades away, because we’re learning exponentially how things really work. Science and technology will answer all the questions we shroud in mystery.
In the section right before today’s first reading the author of Wisdom gives us a vivid picture of the thinking of that day. Let me paraphrase:
They said among themselves, not thinking aright: “Life is brief and burdensome. It was only chance that we were born, and soon it will be as if we had never been. The breath in our nostrils is only smoke, and soon our body will be ashes. Even our name will be forgotten; no one will recall our deeds. . . . So what’s the answer? Come on, let’s enjoy the good things. They’re the only thing that’s real. Let’s have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by. Let’s oppress the needy just man; let’s not look out for the widow or revere the old man as his hair grows white with time. But let our strength be our norm of justice; for weakness proves itself useless.”
Then the passage we read earlier kicks in. We’ll lie in wait for the just one because his life is a reproach to our way of thinking. We’ll test him and watch to see how it turns out. We’ll find out how powerful this ‘god’ of his really is.
Let our strength be our norm of justice. For weakness proves itself useless.
Jesus is not afraid to challenge this world-view. In fact, he goes further. He takes it on and turns it on its head. Not only is weakness and service not useless, it’s the only way to find true life. The Son of Man is going to be handed over to people who will put him to death – but that is the way to life.
Of course the disciples don’t get it. It’s too mind-boggling. So as the great educator he is, Jesus does what good educators do. He asks them a question. Almost off-handedly: “Hey, what were you guys talking about back there on the road? Let me in on it.”
For all its apparent innocence it’s really a blow to the stomach. For of course what they were talking about came right out of the cultural script he was rejecting. Who’s the greatest? Who’s on the front cover of the mags? Who’s hot – and who’s not? Who’s in and who’s out? Weakness is for wimps. Why waste your time on losers?
In last week’s passage he told us that if we want to ‘save’ our lives we have to give them away. This time he tells us how to be Number 1. Go to the back of the line – or the bus. Become a servant. Just as he himself is described in perhaps the earliest hymn of his initial followers, the one Paul cites in Philippians:
“Being in the form of God he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (2:6-8)
If you want to be first, became a servant. A slave.
And like a great teacher he offers an example. He enacts the message. Just who are they to serve? Someone like this child he is hugging.
And here’s where we need to be careful or we miss the point of it all. When we hear the word ‘child’ we probably bring to it all the associations and images of our culture. We’re liable to think of innocence; maybe even be reminded of some 19th-century pious holy card of a Bavarian Jesus hugging a handsome blue-eyed kid. Right out of the gospel of Hallmark. Maybe even -- cute!
‘Child’ in the Near-Eastern culture of Jesus’ day conveyed something quite different. A child had no social status (sociologists tell us that ‘childhood’ as we know it wasn’t really discovered until the end of the 19th century). A child in Jesus’ day had no legal rights. It was basically a non-person. To receive a ‘child’ meant to welcome those who were outsiders. Those who didn’t count in society. And he uses the word to ‘receive.’ It’s an illusion to one of the most important values in that world: hospitality. You receive a guest. You take such a one into your house; you make them comfortable and you serve them by offering them food and drink.
We domesticate the message if we smoothly accept it from the standpoint of our culture. It’s easy to receive a ‘kid.’. It’s another thing entirely to put ourselves on the level of a migrant worker or a day-laborer; the maid in the hotel; the guy who picks up our trash and garbage.
And Jesus makes us go even deeper: not only are you called to receive and serve ‘people like that’ but if you do, you will be receiving me. You will be in the presence of the one who sends me. The Father. Jesus identifies with the outsiders of every society. The Gospel is always counter-cultural. It calls us not only to behave differently than the culture in which we are immersed but to change our whole value-system. To see the world differently.
The message can seem to be all but impossible. When it does, we need to remind ourselves that his prediction does not end with death. He rises. Death is real but death is not the victor, it doesn’t have the last word.
The last word, the point of the whole mission of Jesus is to give life. He said,”I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” And he said, “I pray that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” It’s not ultimately about commandments and hurdles and negatives. Do we forget that he called his major prescriptions beatitudes? “Happy shall you be if . . .”
The trick is that he found his joy in obedience, in giving his life away. “My joy is to do the will of the One who sent me.”
And so is ours.