Commentary to the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
THE ONE WHO SERVES IS WORTH, NOT THE ONE WHO SEEKS TO STAND OUT
He who is in love is always "out of himself with joy." He goes out of himself; he forgets himself by an irrepressible impulse to go to meet the other. Even the mystical experience of ecstasy—from the Greek wordexistánai—means to be outside oneself and absorbed in God.
The one who loves cannot remain in himself; he must go out and give himself to the loved one. It also happens to God, infinite Love and therefore totally 'outside Himself.'
In Christ, he has 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 an indissoluble love unites him: "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 presents himself to us is an invitation to ecstasy, to go out of ourselves and go to our brothers and sisters. The one who stops thinking of himself, of his advantages, self-affirmation, and becomes, like the Lord, the servant of all, encounters 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:
"Great in the sight of God is not who prevails but who makes oneself a servant."
First Reading: Wisdom 2:12,17-20
"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" (Is 22:13). This is the proposal of the revelers of Isaiah's time, recovered by the hedonists of all times, of those who, forgetting God and the future life, cannot find anything better than to withdraw into the reality of this world and abandon themselves to fleeting pleasures.
People like this have always existed, but towards the end of the first century B.C., in Alexandria, Egypt, this group was particularly numerous and aggressive. Alexandria was the metropolis of the Ptolemies, home to the famous library that attracted scholars and academics from all over the world, a prosperous city in which, for three centuries, a sizeable Jewish colony of, according to recent estimates, 180,000 people had settled.
In Alexandria, the Israelites had their synagogues where they read, in Greek translation, the Holy Scriptures; they were under the guidance of their elders and leaders. They kept their identity and could follow their traditions, but they also suffered the irresistible charm of the Hellenistic culture. Some began to succumb to the temptations of idolatry and the seductions of pagan life.
It is in this historical-cultural context that the Book of Wisdom must be placed. Concerned about the danger of apostasy that loomed over his co-religionists, the author exposes, in an impassioned speech put in the mouth of the impious, the proposal of a pleasant life against which the pious Jew had 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 evildoers who promoted such foolish ideas and projects? They were mainly the rich and influential in the city, followed by the intellectuals who, considering themselves the depositaries of a superior culture, despised the Israelites and their religious traditions, branding them as archaic, obsolete, outdated, and already surpassed by the new philosophy.
These, however, were not the most feared of the ungodly group. More than the others, some raged against the Jews, offending them, slandering them, and committing against them all kinds of abuses and misdeeds. These were some Israelites who abandoned the faith of their fathers and joined the pagans in persecuting their brethren in the faith. What these renegades resented most was the exemplary life that, despite the opposition, many pious Israelites continued to practice. That was an open and firm condemnation of their corruption, their apostasy, and their injustices.
The wicked cannot live long with the righteous; they eventually prove too uncomfortable; their unspoken reproach soon becomes unbearable, and the resentment against them sooner or later must explode. If the righteous do not allow themselves to be seduced, they must be eliminated. Today's passage refers to the resolution taken by the wicked: "Let us set traps for the righteous... let us humble and torture him… condemn him to a shameful death."
These threats may refer not only to the Israelites in Alexandria but apply directly to Jesus. He, too, was persecuted by his brothers in the faith, not because he was wicked, but because he announced a provocative message to anyone who conformed to the principles of the wicked.
Persecution is an inevitable event in the righteous life; it always strikes people who choose to live according to God. The preacher who does not disturb, who does not attack the sinful structures of the society in which he lives, who is acclaimed, frequented by the powerful, may have adopted the ungodly mentality.
Second Reading: James 3:16-4:3
Two uncontrolled human instincts—jealousy and strife—are opposed to the wisdom 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.
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
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 for 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 of 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 as 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 were a topic of much debate among the rabbis. At the 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 address 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 for 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, celebrates 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 (Lk22:27).
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 is 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 the 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.