• Wis 2:12, 17-20
• Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8
• Jas 3:16-4:3
• Mk 9:30-37
Three of the greatest temptations known to man are lust for power, pursuit of illicit pleasure, and envious grasping for possessions. These three flow, in various ways, from the capital sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia (CCC 1866). All three, it is important to note, are perversions of authentic and good gifts from God: proper dominion and authority, the wholesome enjoyment of material things, and the joy of right relationships.
These temptations are the subjects of the discourses proclaimed in the Gospel readings over the next four weeks (Mk. 9:30-10:31). The first part of today’s Gospel marks an important transition, which is both physical and pedagogical in nature. First, Jesus and the disciples began to journey through Galilee toward Jerusalem. Secondly, Jesus was not preaching to the crowds that had swarmed after him, but was giving private instructions to his disciples.
Finally, once again, as he had done a bit earlier (Mk. 8:31), Jesus spoke of his approaching Passion: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him…” He would return again to this prophetic message (Mk. 10:32-4), creating a sort of frame around the discourses in-between. This structure was not accidental, for there is a significant relationship—one of conflict and opposition—between the Passion and the temptations to power, pleasure, and possessions.
Put another way, the Passion is the antidote to human passions. Jesus Christ, fully human, freely chose to be handed over to certain death. In doing so, he decisively rejected the pull and allure of power, pleasure, and possessions. Yet he also had to teach his disciples the same, which was no small task considering their frail natures and their imperfect understanding of his mission: “But they did not understand the saying”—that is, his foretelling of his and resurrection—“and they were afraid to question him.” As is so often the case, fear is the acid that eats away at the flesh of faith.
The subject of the argument Jesus asked the disciples about at the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum (cf. Mk. 1:29) is the same subject that has sparked countless arguments, heresies, and schisms over two thousand years of Church history. Who is the greatest? Who will have the most power? Who is in charge? Jesus’ answer was not, of course, merely talk, for he would walk the talk when he willingly took up the Cross and accepted death.
The tree he would be nailed upon was one rooted in perfect humility. “Observe a tree,” wrote Augustine, “how it first tends downward, that it may then shoot upwards. It fastens its root low in the ground that it may send forth its top toward heaven. Is it not from humility that it endeavors to rise? But without humility it will not attain to higher things.” Christ is the personification of the wisdom from above, described by James in today’s Epistle as pure, peaceable, and full of good fruits. He is the fulfillment of the son of God described in the Book of Wisdom, delivered to his foes and condemned to a shameful death. He had no need to attain heaven, which was his home, but planted roots on earth so we might attain heaven by the tree of his crucifixion.
The Son of God, explained Paul in his great Christological hymn in Philippians 2, became a man—a servant—“and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). When Jesus referred to the child in the midst of the disciples, he was making a clear connection (lost in the English translation) between “child” and “servant,” which come from the same root word in Aramaic and Greek.
Divine sonship is rooted in humble servanthood. The divine irony is that becoming a child of God is the only means to becoming truly mature and fully human. And by embracing the Passion, we overcome our passions.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 20, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)