Mark 9: 30 - 37
Humility is not often a virtue easily applied. It does not necessarily come naturally. The last thing a little baby, the center of all attention, is humble. It is acquired over time and experience.
I often wonder how a movie star, popular sports figure, famous world leader or influential politician, a Pope or popular Bishop or even a priest can maintain a sense of humility. I speak from this personally which in itself sounds a bit pompous! Who is the greatest? Who has the competitive edge? Is that really one Jesus teaches us to ask? These were questions even asked between the Apostles as we hear today in the Gospel
So, what does it mean to be a leader in the way of Christ? "To know one's place in the world" is a well-supported definition. To be simple and to reach out to the small and the great. To respect the dignity of every person. To sit in the lowest place among the "common" people is likely our picture of humility. To serve the needs of others despite a position of authority you may have creates of picture of humility. It conjures up a picture of St. Teresa of Calcutta or our own Pope Francis. By their example they embody an image of humility. And we know others in our families or friends or parishioners who do the same.
This Sunday our Gospel is a continuation of Jesus teaching his disciples about the full meaning of his ministry and its ultimate purpose: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise." Often such contradictory statements were spoken by Jesus. To be killed and to rise?
The “Son of Man” was an ancient name for the long awaited Messiah. And the Messiah would be one to overcome any force against him or the nation. He would not be a man of weakness or vulnerability. So to say that he will be arrested and killed is simply out of the question. As we heard last Sunday from Peter who dared to admonish Jesus (paraphrase): “NO!” Peter exclaims. May you be spared such a fate. This doesn't fit with our agenda! That dying and rising line won’t work; you need to speak with power and force! Recall how forcefully Jesus returned Peter’s misconception about his ultimate fate and purpose – “Get behind me Satan!”
Our second reading from Wisdom foretells the suffering of the “prophet.” With an almost sarcastic tone we read: “For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wis 2: 17ff). Let’s call his bluff and challenge his claim!
In a self-sacrificing act of divine humility, Jesus submitted to earthly authority, despite its own corruption, in order to carry out God’s greater plan. That theme is made even plainer as he embraces a child to illustrate not only the true meaning of humility but to show that of discipleship, e.g. servanthood and dependency on trust. This in the midst of his own disciples arguing with each other over who will be the greatest in his Kingdom. In my Kingdom, Jesus would remind them, you must be dependent and trusting like a child. That was a powerful, counter-cultural illustration shocking in its starkness, frankly.
So, here he chooses a child. Yet, in ancient times, children had no protections and were akin to slaves. Child mortality was epidemic and sixty percent of children died before the age of sixteen. In time of famine, children were fed last before adults. Disease and poor hygiene were the primary culprits. Children were the primary care of women; loved yes but also treated severely at times. For a band which Jesus formed to be compared to children was near insulting so what was his point? In light of our present day deep concerns about the safety and respect of children, this Gospel provides a timely image of God's concern for the vulnerable and innocent.
That Kingdom has a deep spiritual dimension. As Jesus often did, he choose an example in the child so shocking that one could not possibly miss the point of his teaching. Think of the parable of the prodigal son whose Jewish father behaved far more like a mother in compassion for his son. The parable of the lost sheep – who would leave the flock unguarded in favor of one? No shepherd would put his entire flock at risk but the Good Shepherd values each individually.
His point is to drive home the model of true discipleship. It isn’t a complicated one: love for others is lived out in service not domination. True humility means to know one’s place and the greatest pursuit of any of us who profess faith in Christ is to illustrate more by our lives than our words.
The disciples were likely shocked, embarrassed, confused by Jesus statement about his impending death and rising and to link that with this child left them, as the Gospel tells us: “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” (Mk 9: 32). To bring honor to oneself is measured by my care for others; and not just to serve them but to do so out of love. Jesus himself is the ultimate model of what that means.
So, the ever present character of a Christian is once again illustrated in stark example for us. Our gathering for Eucharist is the true encounter with Christ whose ultimate example of service with love was offered on the cross. The giving of himself for our sake and his real and constant presence in the Eucharist is a testimony not only of his love for us but generates the energy we need to love one another.
The good that we do in the name of Christ comes back to us one hundred fold. It’s just the way it works. Only then are we truly a humble people. Fr. James Martin, SJ puts it well: "Humility is one of the gateways to the spiritual life. It is also one of the most necessary attributes for any kind of life in prayer."