Wis 2:12, 17-20; Jas 3:16—4:3; Mk 9:30-37
Homily starter anecdote: “The most powerful woman in the world!” At the screening of the film Mother Teresa during the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations in 1983, the Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar rose from his seat to introduce St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) to an elite gathering of the representatives of all member countries of the U.N. He needed only one sentence for his introduction: “I present to you the most powerful woman in the world!” (Hers was the power of humble and sacrificial Christian service!). On March 3, 1976, conferring on Mother Teresa the highest honor of India’s Vishwa Bharati University, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was at that time prime minister of India, said: “I feel myself dwarfed when I stand before this holy and mighty woman who heroically showed the world how to practice Christian love in sacrificial and humble service.” For many years, the world watched, admired and loved this weak and elderly nun, always dressed in a blue-bordered white sari, as the incarnation of humble and sacrificing Christian service. She was the living proof of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel that real greatness lies in serving others. She did this with love and compassion. Beginning in 1962, she was given several awards, national and international, in recognition of her greatness, attained through the humble service given to the “poorest of the poor.” On Sept. 5, 1997, the day of the death of this saint who lived with us, practicing what Jesus commanded His disciples to do, Pope St. John Paul II said: “Mother Teresa marked the history of our century with courage. She served all human beings by promoting their dignity and respect, making them feel the tenderness of God.”
Introduction: Today’s readings invite us to become great in the sight of God by doing God’s will, as Jesus did, surrendering our lives to Him by serving others.
Scripture lessons summarized: The passage from the Book of Wisdom sounds like a messianic prophecy similar to the “Suffering Servant” prophecy in Isaiah referring to Christ’s passion. It urges us to choose the path of righteousness in spite of painful consequences. In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 54), the psalmist prays for help against the insolent people who rise against the upright. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what walking that path is, namely, welcoming and serving the vulnerable in our midst: the defenseless children, the despairing poor, the mentally ill and the marginalized. Jesus also teaches his apostles that only child-like humility and selfless service make one great in the eyes of God. The second reading is in tune with the dispute among the apostles about who is the greatest. In it, James warns us that selfish ambitions destroy peace and cause conflicts and war. So, James advises us to choose the path of righteousness and humble service which leads to lasting peace
The first reading: Wisdom. 2:12, 17-20, explained. The Book of Wisdom was written around 100 BC for “the Diaspora,” — the Jews living in pagan cities such as the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria. Today’s passage is considered to be a messianic prophecy of Jesus’ fate at the hands of his own people, presenting him as a “Suffering servant.” It refers to a righteous sufferer and points to Jesus’ crucifixion. This reading tells us how the world often ill-treats those who strive to live justly and do God’s will. Bible scholars consider this as a reference to a conflict that was developing among the Jews living in Alexandria. The conflict was between those who were trying to keep their faith pure, and those who were adopting pagan Greek customs.
The second reading (James: 3:16 – 4:3), explained: James is emphatic about the contrast between spiritual wisdom and earthly wisdom. The apostle states that conflicts and disputes come from our inordinate desires, worldly cravings and selfish ambition. It is precisely this kind of conflict that appears in the Gospel when the apostles argue about who will be highest in the Kingdom of God. James contrasts this kind of jealousy and selfishness with the wisdom from above that produces a harvest of righteousness.
Gospel exegesis: The context: Jesus was returning to Capernaum after journeying incognito through the Northern Province of Galilee, avoiding crowds and teaching the apostles. Mark presents Jesus as giving three predictions about his suffering and death in chapters, 8, 9 and 10. The response by Jesus’ disciples is disappointing because they were dreaming of a political messiah who would usher in an earthly kingdom. In chapter 8, Peter rebukes Jesus for his words. In chapter 9, (the first part of today’s text), an argument arises among the disciples as to who among them is the greatest. In the third passage (chapter 10), James and John foolishly ask Jesus to give them seats on his right and left, when he comes to power. “The grumbling of the other ten disciples at the request of James and John surely implies that they have shared the same hopes of authority and privilege as have the sons of Zebedee.” (Carl W. Conrad; http://www.ioa.com/~cwconrad/Mark/mk8tr.html). The second part of today’s Gospel describes what happens when Jesus returns to Peter’s house in Capernaum and explains to his apostles what true greatness is.
The Christian criterion of greatness: Jesus says that people who serve humbly are the greatest. He uses a play on an Aramaic word that can mean either servant or child. Presenting a child before them, Jesus explains that one who wishes to be the first among them must be a servant to all. True greatness consists in serving one’s fellow men and is never self-centered. It lies in the ability to see and respond to the needs of others, and it presupposes compassion and sympathy. The two conditions of true greatness are humility and service. This vocation to service belongs to the Church as a whole and to every member of the Church. In other words, the Christian vocation is an apostolate of bearing witness to Christ through loving, humble service. Christian history teaches us that whenever the members of Christ’s Church have forgotten or ignored this call to service, the Church has suffered. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gives us this motto on service: “Do all the good you can; By all the means you can; In all the ways you can; In all the places you can; At all the times you can; To all the people you can; As long as ever you can.”
The paradox of the first becoming the last: Here, Jesus stands conventional wisdom on its head: the truly great person is a diakonos − a deacon − a servant − a person who spends his/her day taking care of other people! What does it mean when Jesus states that those who want to be the first must be the last? Probably, Jesus is speaking of his life and death in this spirit of his being a servant and considered the last, the loser. Jesus wants his apostles to substitute their ambition to rule thus becoming the first, with the ambition to serve, thus becoming the last. We are all supposed to be serving, whatever our position or role in the society or family or in the Church may be, because true greatness lies in being the servant or slave of all.
Welcoming children. “It may appear that Jesus’ teaching about innocence and welcoming the insignificant (vv. 33-37) is out of place in the context of his passion prediction (vv. 30-32). However, the prediction of his coming death was actually elucidated by Jesus’ lesson regarding the child and vice versa. Talya or child in Aramaic can also mean servant. To behave as a talya (servant) and to welcome even someone as insignificant (according to the standards of that time) as a talya (child) is to learn the reason for the cross (vv. 31-32) and its lesson of discipleship” (Sánchez files). In Greek also, the usual term for “children” [παις, pais] is the same term generally used for “slaves,” and vice-versa. By this play on words, it seems clear that, as much as Jesus is counseling His followers to welcome children in His name, Mark is also asking the Christian community to welcome “servants [of the Gospel],” in the same way that they would welcome Jesus. (Dr. Watson). By setting a child before them, Jesus asked them to be like the child, suggesting the importance of innocence and humility. The trusting innocence of a child’s heart is the place where believers can meet both Christ and God. Besides, a child represents the most powerless member of any society, a person who has no power, no influence; a person who can be controlled, abused or neglected by others. By introducing the example of a child, Jesus also shows us that, when serving others, we must be careful to serve the least important. This means that the Christian must show hospitality to those who have no social status: the outcast, the sinner, the sick and the feeble. In other words, the Christian must serve all of God’s children, regardless of whether they are friends or foes. Why? Because such people represent Jesus in our midst and hence they must be welcomed, respected and helped. The passage also tells us that Christians must care for the unwanted, neglected, abused and ignored.
Life messages: # 1: We must become great through humble, self-giving service. Greatness, in Jesus’ view, is found in our willingness to accept, welcome and serve those who are considered unacceptable by reason of class, color, religion, wealth or culture. We must welcome people the way a child welcomes them before he is taught discrimination. If we are to be truly great, we must be ready to accept four challenges: (1) to put ourselves last, (2) to be the servant of all, (3) to receive the most insignificant human beings with love, and (4) to expect nothing in return. During the holy Mass let us pray for the true spirit of service, for an attitude of love for those around us. May the Holy Spirit help us to become truly great through humble, selfless service. St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) puts it like this: “Be the living expression of God’s kindness through humble service; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile and kindness in your warm greeting.” Here is the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa:
The fruit of Silence is Prayer.
The fruit of Prayer is Faith.
The fruit of Faith is Love.
The fruit of Love is Service.
And the fruit of Service is Peace.
2) We need to practice humility in thoughts, words and actions. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” “What is the essential thing in the religion and discipline of Jesus Christ?” St. Augustine asks, and then responds, “I shall reply: first humility, second humility and third humility.” We should not seek recognition and recompense for the service we do for Christ and the Church as parents, teachers, pastors, etc. Trusting Faith resulting from true humility is essential for all corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Since children reflect the innocence, purity, simplicity and tenderness of our Lord, and since they are given the protection of a guardian angel, we are to love them, train them and take care not to give scandal to them. We need to try to treat everyone with love and respect because, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life,” (St. Basil) CCC # 336. (Prepared by Fr. Anthony Kadavil)