Here goes a common saying: ‘Do all the good you can; by all the means you can; in all the ways you can; at all the times you can; to all the people you can and as long as you can’. This is likening of Christ who was described as someone who “went about doing good… because God was with him” Acts 10:38. Truly good people are who they are because of their good actions. Such people are simple and honest; their trust is visible and attractive because God is in them.
First reading: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
A Trappist monk, Thomas Merton who lived between 1915-1968 AD said, “You can tell a saint by the way he sits and stands, by the way he picks things up and hold them in his hands.” In other words, saints are ordinary people who have an uncommon talent for doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. The saint/just one, featured in this text of Wisdom is not being credited with feats of heroism. On the contrary, it is in the banal and mundane circumstances of day-to-day living that this just person excels bringing glory to the God and honor among people.
The book of wisdom was written around 1st Century AD in Alexandria in Egypt by Jews in diaspora. At that time this category of Jews were emulating heroes of their time and searching for meaning outside of Judaism. Greek thinkers and philosophers had become so appealing that many Jews were getting attracted to them. In order to stem the tide of Hellenism that threatened to wash away their heritage, these Jews wrote with an intention to encourage their brethren in the diaspora to retain and preserve in their religious heritage despite the lure of other cultures. Thus the book of Wisdom led the Jews on a meditative tour of their religious, cultural, and historic past while interpreting the past in light of contemporary circumstances and challenges.
Traditionally, Hebrew thinkers maintained that lives of both the just and unjust were the same beyond the grave, apart from a vague existence of God in sheol. Rewards for the good and retribution for the evil were thought to take place during their life time. Long life, wealth and prestige would be for the just while burdens of misfortune would be for the unjust. This theory however needed extra courage because hard facts admitted that the good often suffer while the evil prosper. Numerous solutions were advanced in explanation of this problem and a variety of texts began to emerge which expressed a hope for a life after death cf. Daniel 12:2. Like the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13 the featured saint will, in the end, be vindicated by God. But before that time the very tenor of life would prove to be a reproach to the wicked. Because of the just one’s integrity, others less faithful would regard such a person a model.
Second reading: James 3:16-4:3
When we do not apply wisdom into our actions then the possible outcome will be havoc and conflict among us. As a God-given gift, wisdom encourages innocence, peace, sincerity and kind deeds while keeping jealousy and conflicts in check. Wisdom is the ability to see and judge all things as God sees and judges them. One foremost fruit of wisdom is goodness. Ideally, Christians living ought to be characterized by such exemplariness ‘see, how they love one another!’ cf. Romans 12:10. Realistically, however, this ideal is often overshadowed by envy and conflict. St. James is convinced that the reason why believers fall short of the ideal is because they have refused to comply to God’s will while gratifying their own desires. Earlier in his letter, James had identified the root of all temptations as evil desire cf. James 1:14-15. Today he retaliates the same insisting that where there is lack of wisdom, conflicts abound cf. James 3:16-18.
All the wars we witness flow from one source: desire for money, glory and pleasure!’ Plato 428-348 B.C concurred that ‘the sole cause of wars is nothing other than desire’. Cicero wrote, ‘it is insatiable desires that overturn men, families and even states’. In response to those who blamed such desires and the temptations as result from Satan (the devil made me do it!), James insists that the roots of evil and sin lie within the human heart and that is where it must be resisted. Despite conversion and baptism, Christians are not perfect and must strive to let God’s grace rule their hearts progressively. One of the means by which believers can open their hearts to the gift of grace is to seek wisdom that comes from above cf. James 3:17.
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
In the gospel, Jesus counseled his disciples that true wisdom is best reflected in those who are the most innocent among us. When his followers failed to comprehend the wisdom of God’s saving plan, meaning, that it would involve the suffering and death of Jesus cf. Mark 9: 30-32 and when they argued over who was the most important among them, Jesus offered them the example of a child. Remarkably, Jesus’ identified with the child: “Whoever welcomes little ones, welcomes not me, but him who sent me.” Mark 9:37.
A story narrates that soon after the birth of her brother, four-year-old Sarah asked her parents to leave her alone with the new baby. Worried that she might feel jealous and hurt the newborn, her parents said no. But the little girl’s pleas to be left alone with her brother became more urgent that her parents decided to allow it. Delighted, Sarah went into the baby’s room and closed the door, but it opened slightly, allowing her curious parents to peek in and listen. They watched as their daughter put her face close to her baby brother’s and whisper, ‘baby, tell me how God looks like because I’m starting to forget’. The innocence of this little four-year old-girl is disarming, particularly to adults grown crusty and cynical with age. When Jesus recommended his disciples emulate the little child set in their midst, he reminded them of the innocence that they had long since outgrown. Seemingly, their innocence had been replaced by ambition as to who was most important among them. By offering the example of the child and by calling them to be the servant of all, Jesus challenged them to rethink their attitude toward God and one another. Those who would rank first among us must become the least among us.
In the ancient world, children were a property of their parents; without rights or status; totally dependent on adults. To receive and welcome a child was to perform a good act for an insignificant person, without earthly reward cf. Mark 9:33-37. Talya/child in Aramaic also meant servant. To behave as a talya/servant and to welcome even someone as insignificant as a talya/child was to learn the reason from the Cross cf. Mark 9: 31-32. If Jesus would willingly set aside his rights, status and ambitions in order to submit to a death that would bring salvation, so must those who would be his disciples do likewise. By their willingness to welcome and to serve God’s least children, the disciples would, in fact, would be welcoming and serving Christ and the One who sent him cf. Mark 9:37. Through their compassionate service to the little ones, they would achieve, not the importance over which they had argued, but a share in the glory of Jesus.
As Mark indicates in today’s gospel, at this juncture in their lives, the disciples failed to understand Jesus and were afraid to ask questions. Only later after the resurrection would they more clearly comprehend his person and mission and the meaning of their discipleship. By repeatedly identifying the disciples’ confusion, Mark offers us a reason as to why Jesus was not recognized and hailed as Messiah during his human life time to safeguard the messianic secret. At the same time this repeated reference to the disciples’ obtuseness serves all of us not to under estimate the greatness of the kingdom of heaven. If those, who traveled with him, heard his words and witnessed his works did not fully comprehend his plan at every moment, then we, who are sometimes similarly lacking in insight in the day-to-day challenges of discipleship, should not grow discouraged. Full understanding will come in the measure that we set aside self-importance in favor of service and cynicism in favor of innocence and trust.
Though the speech of the wicked may seem piecing and destructive; it can never win over the strength of wisdom. Assisted by God’s wisdom we have to pray that we are aware of the root causes of our quarrels and in wisdom get a way to solve them. The way of Christianity is the way of the Cross. To be able to comprehend it, we need the simplicity of a little child which allows us total surrender to God.