Ambition – or a current term ‘aspiration’ – is often commended in our times, but the readings today call us to look at its darker side and to consider where it fits in with the community Jesus wanted to create.
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Wisdom is the last book written of our Old Testament, and known only in the Greek version. (Catholics and Orthodox consider it part of the canon of inspired scripture, but Bibles intended for Protestants may omit it.) It is in the Wisdom tradition of some older books in the Hebrew Bible, such as Proverbs, and was probably written to encourage Jews living outside Palestine in Greek-speaking areas. There in pagan surroundings, they could find it challenging to hold on to their Jewish religion. Perhaps some of the difficulties of this are behind the selection for today, which concentrates on the good person who is facing persecution.
The unknown author of this book seems also to draw on the picture of the ‘Suffering Servant’ in Isaiah 53:12 to 53:13. Both of these are texts that helped early Christians understand the persecution that Jesus faced, and in today’s Gospel reading, predicted. I find it painful to read this description, especially in the conditions of our world when torture is frequently in our news.
Psalm 53/54:3-6, 8
This psalm is written by another facing enemies and persecution, and thus fits both the Wisdom reading and the Gospel.
In this selection, the author of James puts himself explicitly in the Wisdom tradition. The opening description of personified Wisdom coming from above is like that found in the book of Wisdom 7:22-8:1, and also in Proverbs 8:22-31 and Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 1:1-4. He contrasts this vision of Wisdom with all forms of discord, and adds a clear description of how this plays out in unhappiness and problems between people, including at the worst, wars. All of this fits what is going on in our modern world.
Our reading concludes with more of James teaching on prayer, one way to understand why many of our prayers, such as those based on such selfish desires, are not something God will answer. This is not the total explanation of how prayers are answered, as the Gospel of Mark will make clear. Some mystery is left on God’s responses, but God draws good out of evil actions in unexpected ways, as was most clearly seen in the suffering and death of Jesus that turned into resurrection and the promise of our final liberation from suffering as well.
In our liturgy selections, Jesus’ second prediction of his passion follows immediately after the first one we heard last week, but in the sequence of the gospel there have been intervening events and so the disciples have had time to reflect on his prophecy. It has done them little good, however, as Mark points out. Even hearing it the second time, they do not understand, and are even ‘afraid’ to ask for an explanation.
Instead they turn their thoughts to their usual expectations of a messianic kingdom. I read one commentator saying, ‘it is hard to imagine grown men arguing in this way over who was the greatest.’ Mature adults may not often go around saying to each other, ‘I am the greatest,’ but in the modern world there is plenty of evidence that being the ‘top person’ is very important to many people and they have many ways of bragging about their achievements. Many seek to be honoured by others, in endless ways. There are times when such self-promotion seems to creep into our churches as well. The disciples have at least the grace to be too embarrassed to admit what they were doing.
Jesus knew their reaction, however, and pressed the lesson home, taking a child to make his point. There is irony – even humour – in his statement: if you want to be the greatest, want to be the least! It could be taken as still allowing ambition –as long it is turned upside-down! But Jesus is pointing that any such competition is out of place in his kingdom. He has given them the example of being a servant, caring for others rather than seeking their service and praise. By going to the shameful death of a criminal, he has ranked himself with the ‘least of all’.
Probably the final words in our selection of welcoming a little one in Jesus’ name were spoken on a different occasion. It was common in the world where memory was more important and writing often scarce, to use such tags as ‘a child’ in organising memories. and to group together sayings joined more by a few common words whether it is logical or linked in a historical situation. No matter when spoken, both are important lessons for Christians.
The challenge to put oneself last and to be ‘the servant of all’ can as hard to carry out as it was for the first disciples to take in.