25th SUNDAY (B) September19, 2021

Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3: 16-4:3; Mark 9: 30-37

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

When you catch a child with their hand in the cookie jar and ask, "What are doing?" What can say after being caught red-handed? Nothing – so they remain silent. That is what happened to the disciples today when Jesus asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?"

Mark has packed a lot into today’s story as he carefully chooses the details leading up to the question at the heart of the narrative. Let’s credit the gospel writers for being gifted. Because they were, we pay attention to the coloring Mark gives the story. He tells us Jesus and his disciples, "left from there." Is it just about leaving a physical place, or will the disciples have to leave a different kind of "place?" Peter, James and John had just witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the high mountain and the cure of the possessed boy before a large crowd. The witnesses to the miracle got excited by what they had seen, their numbers were growing and the disciples chests were swelling with pride for Jesus – and themselves!

That is the "place" Jesus and his disciples left – the place of powerful manifestations that drew awe and excitement, not only from the crowds but from his disciples as well. They must have had dreams of grandeur about being Jesus’ followers. That’s clear when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about "on the way." They were arguing about who was the greatest. "On the way" is a metaphor in Mark for the Christian "way." Followers of Jesus were in a power struggle "on the way." Have you experienced that in your parish, at ministerial and faculty meetings, budget planning sessions, in the local, diocesan and even broader national and international church? "On the way," what are we discussing, not only at the institutional level, but among ourselves in groups of family and friends. In other words, what false notions are distracting us from a more sincere following of Jesus and his way?

Mark was the first gospel, close to the life of Jesus. Later gospels will smooth over the rough edges of Jesus’ disciples. But in Mark the disciples were all-too-human, i.e. they exhibited flaws so evident among us humans. In Mark the disciples seem to reluctantly follow behind Jesus "on the way." They drag their heels as Jesus, while making his journey to Jerusalem, predicts the suffering that lies ahead for himself and anyone wishing to follow him. What he tells them about his suffering and death should surely cause his disciples to lose any notion of rank they currently have in today’s gospel passage.

The gospel passages, as we have heard in recent weeks, are full of contradictory behavior and teachings. Last Sunday Jesus made his first prediction of his suffering, rejection, death and final vindication (Mark 8:27-35). Now, having taken his disciples away from the scene of popularity and success, Jesus "began a journey with them." They were "on the way" – Jesus’ way – they have much to learn and, as he will explain, undergo as his followers.

The disciples were thinking of royal grandeur and earthly triumph, about "who was the greatest?" No wonder they were silent when Jesus questioned them, they were embarrassed having been caught reaching into the cookie jar! Thankfully Jesus does not give up on us sometimes-dense, hard-headed disciples. That is obvious in today’s gospel when he sits down, like a patient teacher, called the Twelve to give them and us his core teaching about leadership in his community. Jesus is speaking to the future leaders of the community. In Mark’s church there were already conflicts and power struggles among that leadership.

They want to "rank first" and Jesus tells them just how to do that – be leaders in a special way. "If anyone wants to be first, they should be the last of all and the servant of all." That’s not our usual way. We put the "dignities" at the up-front banquet table, the center of attention. In ecclesiastical processions the dignitaries go last, from the Pope on down to bishops, monsignori, abbots and priors. I guess that is a response to Jesus’ instruction about the first being last. But that has changed over the years because we have come to recognize the last person in the line as the most esteemed, and have noticed others taking their positions near the "least."

In Jesus’ kingdom dignity comes from truly being the last, like letting others go ahead of you on the vaccine line (but get the vaccine even, if you have to go last!) Dignity, by Jesus’ standards, comes from being a servant to every body. It also means being like a child. In Jesus’ time children were the property of their father, they had no rights before the law, no privilege or rank, they were like servants.

So, if someone comes up to you on the street and asks, "Have you accepted Jesus into your life?" According to today’s gospel, that means we have accepted Jesus’ way of life, being "the servant of all." Well that’s not to my taste in life, is it to yours? I have been taught to strive to get ahead, first online, not the last. I may be willing to be a servant to someone in need, but who is going to return the favor? That’s the way things work in the world of industry, school, politics and unfortunately, among some in the church as well. I suspect that parents, with all the needs placed on them for caring and nurturing their children, have to respond in uncountable ways to be "servants" to their hungry, hurt and, at times, bewildered children. Good parents have done what we, in the kingdom of God, have all been called to do: be servants to others, especially those who have no status that warrants special favors, nor the ability to pay us back.

All this servant talk is a lot to swallow, unless we have "accepted Jesus" into our lives. In him is the mystery of God among us as one who serves – as the church professes at the Mass of Holy Thursday in the ritual re-enactment of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-15 and in Luke 22:27). In Jesus God became the faithful, self-giving servant who gave his life for all.

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