Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
Proper 20 B – Sunday, September 20, 2015
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
|"Jesus Discourses With His Disciples", James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum|
A good time for Jesus to teach his disciples was when they walked from one town to the next. At those times, Jesus’ disciples could have walked close to him to listen to his teaching.
Their traveling time was usually a privileged time for the disciples to learn from Jesus because they were mostly undisturbed by the pressures of expectant crowds.
It is on one such walking stage of their journey that Jesus reminded the disciples for the second time of how he would die and rise again.
Only a few days earlier, Peter had made the confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Messiah was a title loaded with plenty of expectations for the Jewish people.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus forewarns the disciples about his death and resurrection three different times. It was a difficult message for the disciples to hear and receive and digest; and it bore repeating.
Jesus wanted them to understand how his understanding of being the Messiah was different from what Jewish tradition saw in that role.
It was not about overturning the Roman domination system to restore the integrity of a united Kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ glory would come from vanquishing sin and death.
But the disciples don’t get it. Throughout his gospel, Mark keeps portraying the disciples as having difficulties understanding Jesus and being faithful followers of Jesus.
It’s as if Mark is constantly showing us an example of what not to do to be a disciple of Jesus. The disciples don’t understand and they don’t ask for clarification.
Maybe we’re shown in the negative how we need to accept a surprising God and how we are to keep asking for insight from God to follow Jesus.
Then Jesus and the disciples arrive at home base; “the house” at Capernaum says the gospel. There again, Jesus and the disciples have some time to themselves. And Jesus asks them about what they were talking about while they spread themselves out on their way towards Capernaum.
Probably, their group had elongated along the way and Jesus could only overhear the tone of their distant conversation. But he could tell there was some heat in the discussion. Maybe Jesus overheard bits and pieces of the argument which informed him of its nature. In any case, the disciples feel caught red-handed and they stay silent. They were bickering with each other about their honor status.
In an early Eastern Mediterranean society such as Galilee, people would have valued honor above all other goods. They would have monitored with minutiae how honor accrued to themselves and their family, their clan.
After the confession of Peter, the disciples now saw themselves connected with the most honor-rich person in their society, the Messiah from God. They would expect huge honor to accrue to them from being so closely connected with the Messiah.
But a puzzling question remained. Who had gained the most honor in this connection? As any Israelite of their time, the disciples wanted to know where they stood in the new honor-bound pecking order of their group. As long as the pecking order was not confirmed a group was bound to be conflict-prone until they had established the order that ensured peace in the group.
But Jesus turns the disciples’ world vision upside down once again and dismisses the disciples’ anxiety about honor. Not only is his messiahship not about military victory over the pagan occupier, but leadership according to Jesus is to be exercized through servanthood not through mastery over others.
The greek word rendered as servant in English is “diakonos.” It evokes one who runs errands and serves at the table. In an Israelite household of the time, such a servant held the least honor in the house. He had to defer to most everyone else in the household. The only other household members who had as little honor status as the servant were the young children.
So Jesus tells the disciples that they need to let go of their vicarious honor accumulation; they need to let go of seeking status. They are to seek the least honorific position of servanthood in order to be first in the Reign of God. The first will be last. The diakonos is a leader in the Reign of God.
And to illustrate his point, Jesus gets hold of a little child and takes this little child in his arms. Children were not highly valued in first century Palestine. While still a minor, a child was on a par with a slave in the honor system that governed society.
Child mortality was horrendous, 30% of children died in infancy, another 30% before the age of 6. The old age safety of having children lied in numbers not in the quality of relationship with any single child. Parents would have many children, in the hope that enough would reach adulthood to support them in their productive activities and in their old age.
And so, when Jesus picks up a child and sits it in his lap, it is not a Hallmark moment but another shocking revelation to the disciples that in order to be first, they will need to be like the humblest participants of the mainstream’s honor system.
Jesus is underlining that in order to be first in the Reign of God, we have to be willing to be servants of servants. In welcoming the humblest members of society as Christ, we are welcoming Jesus and therefore getting closer to God.
So the Son of Man, a title only Jesus gave himself, is not going to take us out of all our worldly trouble, but he is going to save us from death and sin.
We are here to build and find the Ream of God where we are, not to escape the difficulties of living, at least, not this side of death. The Realm of God is within us and outside of us. We only have to be willing participants of the Reign-in-process which vanquishes sin and death.
And we are to serve God in those whom we would normally consider ourselves superior to. In doing so, we are to value the place of the last ones, of the least ones amongst us, in order to deserve belonging with God.
Lord, help me serve You in those who appear to be the least of all in our eyes. They are first and foremost in your eyes. Help us remember that you served to the very end, making the ultimate sacrifice for us. Help us to be willing and able to do that too for the love of you. Amen.