Listen to our Prior, Fr. Joel, as he shares his thoughts during today’s homily:
Wisdom 2:12, 17–20
In Saint Benedict Center at the moment, there is a display of historical pianos mostly from the romantic period. Each piano comes with story about a composer or pianist who was around at the time or may have even played the piano. It reminds me of story I read about the composer Robert Schumann. It seems that on one occasion he played a rather difficult étude. Afterwards, one of the listeners asked him to explain the piece. Schumann thought a moment, then replied by sitting down at the piano and playing the piece a second time.
Today’s gospel seems to be a bit like the story from Schumann’s life. The disciples have already clearly heard Jesus’ announcement about the fact that he will be handed over, put to death and then rise on the third day. It seems they did not get it the first time so Jesus is repeating his piece a second time. In Mark’s Gospel today’s story is known as the second Passion prediction. I admit that Mark has added some variation to the theme but what has not changed is that the disciples just don’t get it. Unlike the man in Schumann’s audience, they are not about to ask for an explanation or a “would you play it again.”
Mark is blunt. The disciples do not understand and they are afraid to question Jesus. Yet, there is no need to be afraid because there is no crowd around; it is just Jesus and his disciples. What are they afraid of? Maybe it is the implications of following a Messiah who says point blankly that religious authorities and others will hand him over to be killed. If that is what will happen to the Master, what will happen to us? If he is headed for suffering, what are we headed for if we follow him? We know the temptation. In difficult times we are afraid to question, to go on seeking the truth. We don’t ask questions when our security in faith and life seem threatened. We probably hope the problem will go away. Maybe Jesus is just talking out loud and using his imagination. After all, the Son of Man he talks about is supposed to come in glory and judge us. We thought we could get in on that and have some seats next to him and share his glory. What is this about the Son of Man being handed over? Better not to ask. If we ask, then maybe our comfort zone will be challenged and we will have to rethink who this man is and what our discipleship is all about. If we ask him a question, maybe we will find out that being his follower is not what we thought it would be. Better not ask. Don’t disturb anything.
But the teacher was not talking to himself or playing music for his ears only. It is music that must course through the harmony of our lives as well. So when they are truly alone, “in the house,” he asks them bluntly what they were arguing about “on the way.” Now Jesus asks the disciples a direct question. What is their response? Silence. They say nothing. We find out that their arguing was about who was the greatest. They were more concerned about honor, status and rank among themselves than what it would mean that the master would be handed over and suffer death and then rise. The argument was all about power in the group or who was on top, the greatest, the most important. Can one blame them? This is the way the culture worked. You wanted to be as close as possible to any great and attractive figure such as Jesus was. Culture dictated that you would gain social status the closer you were to the Master, the more you were in his favor.
But their silence to Jesus’ question meant they were not repeating the piece they were playing on the way. Did they realize that what they were saying and what Jesus was saying did not match, that there was no harmony there? You cannot have Jesus speak about his being handed over to the power of men, killed and then rise and at the same time be arguing about who is the greatest, the most important, the powerful one in the group… That is not Kingdom logic…Jesus’ response? He does not default on his role as teacher. Interestingly, he does not reprimand them for what they were arguing about. He teaches by example, by a living parable.
They were interested in social status. So Jesus takes a child. Not that child whom we are to imitate and be like with all its innocence and trust. No, Jesus takes the child who has no standing in Palestinian culture, along with women and widows. Jesus takes the child who cannot offer anyone hospitality or put food on the table or wash your feet. Jesus takes the child as the least in the group and puts the child in the middle, yes in the middle. And he does what he never does to anyone else in the gospel, he puts his arms around the child; he embraces the child—something like the father does to his prodigal son. And then he says, welcome a child, the least among you, the one who cannot honor you in return because he or she has no honor. Welcome that child and you will be welcoming me and my Father. Welcome the one without honor and status and you will be welcoming the divine presence. Welcome the one without honor and serve them, then you will have honor by me.
You argue about status, jockeying for being on top no matter what your world is: business, politics, government, academics, the farm or factory. That is all about playing for power. That is not my way or the way of my Father. Our way is one of service, one of embracing the least, holding them in the middle of the community, surrounding them, honoring them.
Jesus is on a journey through Galilee; he is on the way, on the road, as we say. Eventually, his road will go to Jerusalem where the piece he is playing for his disciples today will be finished. We too are on the way, but what way is it? The disciples were on the way with Jesus, but after today, they find out that they were not really on the way of Jesus and the Father. They were on their own way, to the top, so they thought. But Jesus’ way is different from the world’s way. Our temptation is to be on Jesus way but see it in our terms. James says it well: when left to your way, it turns out to be a way of jealousy and ambition, grasping for power, which always seems to elude.
But that is not the wisdom we have from the Lord Jesus. His wisdom is a way that produces peace. It is grounded not in self, but in the good of others. The way of servanthood, the way that embraces the least, the vulnerable, those society easily pushes aside; that is the wise way according to our God’s standards……Oh yes, there is the temptation not to ask questions of this way because it means questioning my way.
We are in the house now. Jesus has pulled up his teacher’s chair. He is going to teach us. He can be trusted to teach us well. He knows how to give up status, he did not cling to equality with God but emptied himself and became a slave. And like many a slave, he was condemned to death. He said yes to our death, our helplessness. Such was his love for us weak ones who thought first was great. And for taking this road, for walking this way, he was raised up to new life. His way bore fruit.
Now he puts himself in front us in this house: his broken body in the food; his life blood poured out in the cup. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are embracing him, his way, and the Father who lifts us up, not to be first but to continue to serve in the world till all are honored and restored.
Fr. Joel Macul, OSB