(James 3:16-4.3; Mark 9:30-37)
There are three movements in our Gospel passage today. First, Jesus is on a journey and he is talking seriously to his disciples, telling them, “The Son of Humanity is to be handed over and killed and will rise.” But the disciples don’t understand him and they are afraid to question him. I think we’re just like the disciples. Jesus is trying to teach us reality–about life and death, suffering and love, the way of the cross, the way of suffering, redemptive, nonviolent love. But we don’t understand him or the way of the cross, and we’re afraid to ask God or even one another about these truths. Today though the Gospel invites us to put away our fears, to listen to Jesus, to walk with him on the way of the cross, and to give our lives away as Jesus did, in perfect unconditional love and nonviolent resistance to evil.
The second movement occurs when they arrive back in Capernaum, and Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” He had just been telling them this difficult news, that he is going to be killed, and how do they respond? They not only don’t understand, they’re not only afraid, they’re arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest. It’s very sad, but also very instructive. Jesus is the greatest person who ever lived, and he’s asking for their help and our help, trying to explain to them and to us, what’s about to happen, the way of the cross, and they’re arguing among themselves about which one of them is greatest. But again I don’t think we’re that different. Instead of listening to Jesus, reflecting on his cross, walking with him and loving one another, we focus on ourselves and how great we are or we argue with one another and try to get attention for ourselves, instead of for Jesus. But today the Gospel says, Put away your egos and your pride, stop with one another, and focus your attention on Jesus and his way of the cross.
And notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t yell at them, and say, “Hey I’m trying to tell you that they’re going to kill me.” Instead, he sits them down and issues this fundamental teaching about the spiritual life: “If anyone wishes to be first, they have to be the last of all and the servant of all.” For Jesus, this is the meaning of life. We should not strive to get ahead of one another or dominate one another or be superior to others or as a nation, to be the imperial power over the world. Jesus wants us instead to out do one another in serving one another, to be servants of all, without any desire for a reward for our actions.
Finally, Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He starts talking about the really great people in our midst and puts a child in their circle and starts talking about children and points to a child and says in effect, children are the greatest human beings. “Whoever receives a child, receives me, and not only me, but the one who sent me, God.” It’s an astonishing statement, that God is present in the innocence, beauty, simplicity, and purity of children.
In those days, no one cared about children; they were totally expendable, so the male disciples would probably have been shocked by what he was saying. Today, unfortunately children are also expendable. The United Nations and UNICEF say that over 50,000 people die of hunger every day, most of them children; that hundreds of millions of children around the world are hungry, homeless, sick, illiterate and dying. We kill children in war, have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the last decade from our sanctions, and today hundreds of thousands of children are forced to be soldiers in some of the world’s wars. This is unconscionable and unacceptable.
The Gospel tells us today that we are to love and serve our children and all children; never to hit or hurt a child; but to nurture our children, to tell them how much God loves them, to help them grow in love and peace to become great saints. But the Gospel wants us also to stand in solidarity with the children of the world, to pray for them and advocate for them, so that every child on the planet has food, every child on the planet has free medical care, every child on the planet has a good education and homes and a good family life so they can grow in peace and love. That is what Jesus wants us to do.
Instead of serving one another, St. James writes bluntly in his letter, that we are jealous and envious of one another, we fight and kill one another, and we wage war because we covet others’ good, and this is exactly the state of the world today, beginning with our atrocious, catastrophic occupation of the people of Iraq. James tells us to renounce the causes of wars in our own hearts and lives, to be peaceful and gentle and merciful and sincere. That’s the goal if we want to follow Jesus and understand the way of the cross.
So the Gospel asks us: How seriously do we listen to Jesus as he shares with us his cross and his way of the cross? How can we put aside our fears and our egos to accompany Jesus? How can we more and more become the last of all and servants of all? How can we welcome and love and serve our children and the children of the world even better? St. James concludes simply that we should sow the seeds of peace around us and cultivate peace in our hearts and among us, so that we can all live in peace today, and welcome God in the world’s children, and be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus.