Commentary on the Readings
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – September 23, 2018
Who Serves is Worthier than Who Prevails
Who is in love is always “beside himself with joy.” He comes out of himself, forgets himself because to encounter the other proves to be an irresistible impulse. Even the mystical experience of ecstasy, from the Greek word existánai means “to be beside oneself” and caught up in God.
Who loves cannot remain in oneself. He has to come out and surrender to the beloved. It also happens to God, infinite love and therefore completely “out of himself.”
In Christ he revealed his ecstasy. He left heaven and came among us: “As I came from the Father—Jesus says—and have come into the world” (Jn 16:28). His destiny is to return to the Father, but does not leave people to whom he is united in an indissoluble love: “I shall come and take you to me—he assures—so that where I am, you also may be… I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 14:3; 16:22).
The Lord who comes out of himself and comes among people is a call to ecstasy, to get out of oneself to go toward the brethren. Who stops thinking of himself, his own advantage, self-affirmation and makes oneself, as the Lord, the servant of all, meets God. “How did the love of God appear among us?” God sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him.
“It’s not that we love God but that God first loved us, so we, too, must love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love comes to perfection in us.” (1 Jn 4:9-12).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“It’s not who prevails, but who makes oneself a servant is great in the sight of God.”
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Is 22:13). This is the proposal put forward by the revelers of Isaiah’s time. It is resumed by the hedonists of all time, by those who, forget God and the future life. They cannot do better than withdrawing from the realities of the world and abandoning themselves in revelries. People like this has always existed, but towards the end of the first century B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt, this group was particularly large and aggressive.
Alexandria was the metropolis of the Ptolemies, home of the famous library which attracted scholars and men of letters from all over the world. It was an opulent city in which, for three centuries, a numerous Hebrew colony, according to recent estimates, 180,000 people, was established.
In Alexandria the Israelites had their synagogues where they read, in the Greek translation, the holy scriptures. They were guided by their elders and chiefs, retained their identity and were able to follow their traditions, but also suffered the irresistible allure of Hellenistic culture. Someone began to succumb to the temptations and seductions of idolatry and of pagan life.
It is in this historical-cultural context that the composition of the Book of Wisdom is set. Concerned about the danger of apostasy that hangs over his coreligionists, the author sets out, in a passionate speech placed in the mouth of the wicked, the proposals of a life of pleasure, from which every devout Jew has to be on guard.
“Led by mistaken reasons they think, ‘Life is short. By chance we were born; when life is over, it will be as if we never existed.’ Come then and enjoy all the good things: let us use creation with the zest of youth, making the most of choicest wines and perfumes and not passing by any flower of spring. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they fade. Let us oppress the poor, and have no thought for the widow, or respect for the white hair of old age. Let our strength be our right, since it is proved that weakness is useless” (Wis 2:1-11).
Who were these “wicked people” who made themselves promoters of so foolish ideas and projects? They were primarily the wealthy and affluent of the city, then, the intellectuals who, believing themselves custodians of a superior culture, despised the Jews and their religious traditions, which are considered archaic, obsolete, superseded by new philosophies.
But they were not the most dangerous members of the group of “the wicked.” There were some who, more than others, raged against the Jews, insulting, slandering, making all forms of harassment and abuse. There were some Israelites who abandoned the faith of their fathers. They joined the pagans to persecute their fellow believers.
What most annoyed these renegades was the exemplary life that, despite the opposition, many pious Israelites continued to lead. This constituted an open and strong condemnation of their corruption, their apostasy and their injustices.
The wicked cannot live long with the righteous; they are too uncomfortable, their tacit rebuke soon becomes unbearable and the hatred against them, at some point, must explode. If the righteous do not let themselves be seduced, they are eliminated. In today’s passage the resolution taken by the wicked is referred to: “Let us set traps for the righteous… let us humble and torture him… condemn him to a shameful death.”
These threats may be related not only to the Jews of Alexandria, but applied directly to Jesus. He, too, was persecuted by his brethren in the faith, not because he was evil, but because he was announcing a provocative message to anyone who conformed to the principles of the wicked.
Persecution is an inevitable event in the life of the righteous. It always affects one who chooses to live according to God. The preacher who does not disturb, does not call into question the structures of sin of the society in which he lives, is hailed and patronized by those in power, perhaps has adopted the mentality of the wicked.
Two uncontrolled human instincts—jealousy and strife—are opposed to the wisdom that is from above (v. 16). From these pulses all sorts of evil deeds originate.
The author then explains the characteristics of the “wisdom of God.” It is manifested where there is understanding, kindness, mercy, peace, generosity, where envy and hypocrisy do not exist. Only those who, guided by this “wisdom,” commit themselves to establish fraternal relations among people become builders of peace (v. 18).
In the second part of the passage (vv. 1-2) the causes of discord that explode in the world, society, and even within the Christian community are identified. The first is the desire to accumulate material goods, from which envy towards those who managed to reach this goal before the others, is born. Wars and dissensions break out because men are selfish, seeking dominion over others instead of mutual service, claiming the first places, not the last, as Jesus recommended to choose.
Christians who adapt to the “wisdom that comes from above” should not in any way get involved in such disputes. If they really commit themselves to do only what is pleasing to the brothers, it would eliminate the root causes of conflicts.
In the last part of the reading (v. 3) James refers to authentic prayer. At times we beseech the Lord, but not that his will be fulfilled in us, but that our dreams, quirks, egos and passions be realized. It makes no sense to ask the Lord an intervention to satisfy our pleasures; from him we must implore for wisdom, the ability to understand his plans and the power to implement them.
There are many repetitions in the Gospels, but are not random; they always have a reason. The multiplication of the loaves, the dispute among the disciples as to who was the greatest, the Master’s reply to these claims, the embrace of Jesus to children are episodes that Mark refers twice. The announcement of the passion is repeated as many as three times, always accompanied by a reprehensible reaction on the part of the disciples, unable to understand a proposal of life that, according to the criteria of the people, is totally senseless.
In the first part of today’s passage, the second of these announcements is introduced: “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him; but three days after he has been killed, he will rise” (v. 31).
“He is about to be delivered.” By whom?—we ask. The answer seems obvious: by Judas. Instead we are faced with what theologians call “divine passive,” i.e. a verb in the passive that, in the Bible, is used to attribute to God a determined action. “It is the Lord” who gives his son, “who delivers him into the hands of people.”
The lover has no other way to express all his love than to throw himself into the arms of a loved one. This is what God has done: he turned himself into the hands of people, knowing that they would do to him what they wanted.
The answer to this great love is dramatic and is announced by Jesus in the future: they will kill him. Here the crime is not attributed to the high priests and scribes, but to people. If God remained in heaven, he might have been forgotten, or at best, blasphemed, but since he decided to come down to earth and put himself into the hands of men, he consigned himself to death.
The disciples are not able to understand this love of the Lord. Their thoughts are too far removed from those of the sky and are afraid to ask Jesus for clarification (v. 32).
It is easy to see the reason of their stupidity. According to Jesus, the fate that awaits the Son of Man is incompatible with the religious beliefs inculcated by the rabbis, is the opposite to their expectations. They cannot accept the idea that God abandons his chosen one into the hands of criminals. They agree with the objection that the wise Eliphaz addressed to Job, “have you seen a guiltless man perish, or an upright man done away with?” (Job 4:7) and the assertion of the Psalmist: “From my youth to old age, I have yet to see the righteous forsaken” (Ps 37:25).
How to reconcile God’s justice with the defeat or even the death of the Son of Man?
No wonder that even after hearing the second time the same announcement, the disciples have not understood it, that is, they are not able to accept the scandal of the passion of the Messiah. The record of the Evangelist is not surprising: “they were afraid to ask him what he meant” (v. 32). They still had in mind his almost resentful reaction when Peter tried to dissuade him from the path of the cross. They realized that when they touched this point, the Master became tough, uncompromising, would not be contradicted and did not accept suggestions.
The lack of harmony with the mind of Christ inevitably leads to the falling back of the belief of people. In the second part of the passage (vv. 33-35), the evangelist introduces an episode that gives us the confirmation.
The disciples did not understand or have deliberately closed eyes and ears, so as not to hear the Master’s words and not set the goal proposed by him to all disciples.
They continue to follow him to Jerusalem, but, just along the way that leads to the cross, they cultivate dreams opposed to those of Jesus.
Once in Capernaum, the Master asks them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (v. 33). His is not a question but an accusation. He is aware of the heated dispute in which all got involved during the journey.
The disciples are silent, they feel exposed, ashamed. They realize that they have committed something senseless. They know that, on the subject of seeking the first places, the Master does not agree and always speaks firmly.
Questions of hierarchies and precedence was a topic of much debate among the rabbis. At table, in the synagogues, in the street, in the assemblies the question of the place of honor always came up. They also quibbled on the classes of saints in paradise and claimed that there were seven: to each chosen one his or her rank, more or less elevated, depending on the merits. As the saints in heaven, even the inhabitants of this world were to be cataloged: positions of prestige were assigned to the righteous; the impure people, the poor of the land were marginalized.
There are arguments that Jesus did not directly addressed and these can be discussed and also to have differing opinions, but on the hierarchy, the honorary titles, classes he intervened repeatedly and explicitly.
Mark carefully reconstructs the scene. While the embarrassed disciples are silent, Jesus “sits down,” takes the position of the rabbi who is preparing to teach an important lesson. Then he “calls his disciples to him,” and orders them to come because he sees them separated. He feels them distancing from him. Finally he pronounces “his solemn judgment” on the true greatness of the man, “If someone wants to be first, let him be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35).
It is the synthesis of his proposal of life and it is so important that the evangelists resume it six times with different shades.
Mark notes that the scene took place “in the house” and this “house” represents the Christian community. Each community must consider addressed to itself the words of the Master. It has to absolutely avoid inventing excuses to justify, inside, the situations of domination and subordination, which are in sharp contrast with the gospel. It must especially guard itself of the temptation to take as a reference point the bows, respects and gifts used in civil society. “But not so with you, Jesus ordered!” (Lk 22:26).
In the Christian community who occupies the first place has to put aside all desire of greatness. The church is not a stepping stone to get to positions of prestige, to emerge, to gain control over others. It is the place where everyone complies with the gifts he has received from God, celebrate their greatness in humble service to others. In God’s eyes, the greatest is the one who most resembles Christ, who is the servant of all (Lk 22:27).
To inculcate the lesson better, Jesus makes a significant gesture, narrated in the third part of the passage (vv. 36-37). He takes a child, places him in the middle, hugs him, and he adds: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this in my name, welcomes me.”
In the following chapter Mark recalls another episode in which the affection and tenderness of Jesus towards children are highlighted. Some mothers presented their children so that they might touch them. It was believed, in fact, that physical contact with men of God communicated strength, goodness, gentleness and their own spirit. The disciples did not like this too much familiarity and confidence and felt compelled to scold and to ward off the intruders. Upon seeing this, Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and laid his hands on them and blessed them (Mk 10:13-16).
In this episode, the children are presented as models to imitate. Jesus invites us to become like them, to enter into the kingdom of God. In today’s passage instead the children are referred to as symbols of being weak and helpless that needs protection and care.
In Jesus’ time, as now, the children were loved, but no social importance is given to them. They did not matter from a legal standpoint; they were even considered unclean because they transgressed the requirements of the law.
If one keeps this fact in mind, the meaning of Jesus’ gesture becomes clear. He wants the community of his disciples to put at the center of its attention and efforts the poorest, those who do not count, the marginalized, the unclean people.
We live in a competitive society. The teacher is pleased with the more diligent and prepared students; the coach glories of the strongest of his athletes, but the mother follows different criteria. She is driven by love and her care are devoted to the weakest of her children.
A disciple of Christ is one who, following the example of the Master, takes the children in his arms.
A child is the one who is completely dependent on others, does not produce, consumes only, needs everything. He can also cause trouble, does not think as an adult.
It is not easy to embrace one who, at forty, still needs to be assisted like a child, pulls, makes mischief, is rude, impedes the orderly life of others, no commitment. “Hugging” does not mean consent to all his desires, to satisfy his whims and support his indolence, but to educate him, help him grow, to make him become an adult.
There are, in all our communities, children, impure persons, indeed, there is “a child” in all of us. The hug is a gesture that expresses the joyful acceptance, trust, respect, willingness to serve one another, so we feel the need to be embraced by the brothers of our community.
The “holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12) that we exchange during the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of this mutual and unconditional acceptance.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: