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Least and Last; Greatest and First

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Least and Last; Greatest and First

Perhaps there are a few of you sitting out there this morning thinking, “Didn’t he read that Gospel passage last week?” Actually, though it is similar in its content, it is not the same as last week’s Gospel passage. In fact St. Mark includes a prediction of Jesus’ passion and death three times in his Gospel, in chapters, eight, nine, and ten respectively. With just a touch of irony, the evangelist always pairs up Jesus’ prediction with very inappropriate comments from the Apostles. Last week we hear Peter rebuke Jesus for his words. This week, the other apostles join in a conversation about which of them is the greatest. In chapter ten, Peter puts his foot in his mouth again and asks Jesus what their reward for following Jesus will be.

The fact of the matter is that those who follow Jesus should expect that they too will be asked to lay their lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel. The disciples of Jesus were to make themselves the least if they wished to be the greatest. To bring home this point, once he learns what the Apostles were talking about, he places a little child in their midst and tells them that whoever receives one child such as this in his name, receives him. In the world of Jesus’ time, neither servants nor children had any legal rights or social status. They and women were dependent on the good will of the male head of the household. The male band of the Apostles would have been startled by Jesus’ explanation of what it means to become the least.

One can hardly blame them. They had been raised in a culture which taught them what we would call the principles of retribution or reciprocity. The Hebrew Scriptures emphasize this over and over again. If you are good and keep the Law, God will bless you with good things and plenty. If you disregard God’s Law, you will experience the curses of which the Torah speaks – illness, poverty, shame, and dishonor. However Jesus by a different principle. Blessings, good health, and honor are gifts that God visits upon those who obey God’s will despite the suffering they may encounter in life.  So the threefold prediction of his passion and death are his way of teaching the Apostles a new way of looking at the presence of hardship and suffering in one’s life.

The passage from the Book of Wisdom exposes us to the voices of the wicked. This does not occur very often in the Scriptures. Generally speaking, the Wisdom literature is filled with voices that urge us to the pursuit of goodness and obedience of the Law. They utter some rather disturbing thinking. They speak of reviling and torturing a just person. Their evil lives are exposed by the faithfulness of the just person. They justify their behavior by claiming that if the just man is truly a son of God, the just man will be protected from their crimes. This fits into the principle of retribution very conveniently.

In the Gospels Jesus clearly takes on the persona of the just one, the son of God, who is reviled and persecuted, tortured and executed by the wicked. The Apostles obviously cannot move beyond their cultural upbringing. When the moment of trial comes for Jesus, they abandon him. They who had left everything in order to follow him abandon him when he needs them the most. It is the Gospel of St. Mark that ironically tells us that one of the apostles is in such haste to run from Jesus that he literally escapes naked, leaving everything behind to get away from the destruction that is about to fall upon Jesus.

The entire Letter of James is an exhortation to moral and ethical conduct. Today the sacred writer exposes the source of human discord. Jealousy, selfish ambition, covetousness, fighting, murder and envy are the fruits of those who fail to understand that we are called to be the least if we wish to be great, to be last if we wish to be first. We must set aside the agenda of our human passions and embrace the ethos of the suffering servant. To welcome Jesus into our midst means we must welcome the very least in our society and embrace a life of selfless service of the poor who are victims of the wicked and the greedy. The crucifix that hangs in every one of our homes is a daily reminder that this is must characterize our lives.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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