Truths that are hard to hear
We can all struggle at times to listen to someone if what they say arouses painful emotions in us. They might be trying to tell us something about ourselves that we find difficult to hear. That very human tendency is reflected in the disciples in this morning’s gospel. Jesus had something very important to say about what was about to happen to him. In the words of the gospel, he was telling them that he would find himself in the hands of others, who would put him to death. This was something that the disciples found very hard to hear and were not able to take on board. As the gospel says, ‘they did not understand what he said and they were afraid to ask him.’ Already in Mark’s gospel Jesus told them what was likely to happen to him. They were no more open to hearing it the second time than they were the first. They did not understand it and they were reluctant to question him because they were afraid they might not be able to live with the answers he would give them. In some ways that is a very human reaction. We often find ourselves not willing to ask questions because we suspect that we would struggle to live with the answers to our questions.
Yet, in our heart of hearts, we often recognize that there are certain realities we have to face, even if they are painful to face. There are certain illusions we may have to let go of, even if we have come to cherish them. In the second part of this morning’s gospel Jesus worked to disillusion his disciples, in that good sense. He needed to prise them away from the illusions of greatest that they harboured. They seemed to have thought that being part of Jesus’ circle would bring them privilege and status. No sooner had Jesus spoken of himself as someone who would end up as one of the least than the disciples began to argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. They wanted power and, it seems, that they wanted power for its own sake. This is the kind of self-centred ambition that James talks about in the second reading when he says, ‘you have an ambition that you cannot satisfy, so you fight to get your way by force.’ In place of that very worldly ambition, Jesus places before his disciples a very different kind of ambition, an ambition that has the quality of what James in that reading refers to as ‘the wisdom that comes down from above.’ This is God’s ambition for their lives and for all our lives. It is the ambition to serve, as Jesus says in the gospel, ‘those who want to be first must make themselves last of all and servant of all.’ This ambition to serve, again in the words of James in that second reading, is something that ‘makes for peace and is kindly and considerate; it is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good.’
Jesus implies that this is to be our primary ambition as his followers. All our other ambitions have to be subservient to that God-inspired ambition. In his teaching of his disciples and of us all, Jesus elaborates on his teaching by performing a very significant action. He takes a little child and sets the child in front of his disciples, puts his arms around the child and declares that whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes him and not only him but God the Father who sent him. Jesus was saying by that action that the ambition to serve must give priority to the most vulnerable members of society, symbolized by the child who is completely dependent on adults for his or her well being. Our ambition is to serve those who, for one reason or another, are not in a position to serve themselves. Jesus goes, assuring his disciples and us that in serving the most vulnerable we are in fact serving him. In the presence of the disciples who seemed consumed with an ambition for power for its own sake Jesus identifies himself with the powerless, those who are most dependent on our care. Over against the ambition of the disciples to serve themselves, Jesus puts the ambition to serve him as he comes to us in and through the weakest members of society. In our gospel Jesus is putting before us what his family of disciples, what the church, is really about. [Martin Hogan]