Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Gentleness in the Midst of Suffering: The Readings for the 24th Week of Ordinary Time

Looking over the readings for this week, I was reminded of a classic scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker find themselves, after a long separation, suddenly reunited—but as prisoners of their common enemy, Jabba the Hutt:

Han Solo: Together again, huh?
Luke: Wouldn't miss it.
Han Solo: How we doin'?
Luke: Same as always.
Han Solo: That bad, huh?

In this Sunday's readings, we have texts from a wide range of periods in salvation history: a psalm of David (c. 1000 BC), a reading from Wisdom (c. 100 BC), a gospel narrative (c. AD 30), and a letter of St. James to the early Church (c. AD 50).  Every text reflects the godly person or persons being persecuted in some way.  Furthermore, as we read these texts we can't help but think of the various forms of hostility or persecution the Church is experiencing in our own country and throughout the world.  So: "How we doin'? --"Same as always."  Persecution is nothing new: it is the "normal" of those who would follow Jesus.  Nonetheless, we find in these readings that the hope of resurrection empowers us to be both joyful and gentle in the midst of the sufferings we experience.

1. Our First Reading is Wis 2:12, 17-20:

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings,
reproaches us for transgressions of the law
and charges us with violations of our training.
Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will happen to him.
For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him
and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test
that we may have proof of his gentleness
and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
for according to his own words, God will take care of him.
The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon was probably written in the second or first century BC in Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a large colony of Greek-speaking Jews.  Those Jews who remained faithful to their religion and faith apparently suffered at the hands of the surrounding Gentiles, as well as from wealthy Jews who had abandoned their faith and adopted Greek culture instead.  This situation seems reflected in our First Reading.

Wisdom 2 is a famous chapter, and it's well worth reading in its entirety as a preparation for Sunday's Mass.  It's striking for two reasons: (1) the way in which it sounds like a description of Jesus' passion, and (2) the remarkably "modern-sounding" attitude of the "wicked" who are persecuting the righteous man.  Let me paste here the first half of the chapter, which provides background for our First Reading:
Wis. 2:1   For [the wicked] reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.  2 Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.  3 When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.  4 Our name will be forgotten in time and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat.  5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Wis. 2:6   “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.  7 Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us.  8 Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.  9 Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.  10 Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.  11 But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. 12   “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.
Let's note the strikingly “modern”-sounding perspective of the wicked, whose worldview anticipates a number of developments and movements in modern philosophy and culture, including:
(1) Darwinism, the view that chance and necessity alone, without the guidance of any agent (i.e. God), have lead to human life, (“We were born by mere chance,” 2:2);
(2) Epiphenomenalism, the belief that the mind is an illusion arising as a byproduct of biological, material processes (“Reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts,” 2:2);
(3) Materialism, the belief that matter is all that exists, and the denial of any meaningful spiritual reality including the human soul (“When [reason] is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes and the spirit dissolve like empty air,” 2:3);
(4) Hedonism, the belief that pleasure is the goal of life (“Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us,” 2:7);
(5) Nietzscheism/Machiavellianism, the belief that there is no objective moral order, and power alone establishes right and wrong (“Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless,” 2:11).

Of course, all of these “-isms” are mutually inter-related and lead one to another.

It's very important to reflect on this passage of Wisdom, because it reminds us that so much of the secular worldview we think of as "new" or "modern," really isn't at all.  For all practical purposes, secularism--that is, an essentially atheistic, materialist worldview--was alive and well, and espoused by many of the wealthy and powerful, already back in centuries before the coming of Christ.  As another biblical author put it, "There is nothing new under the sun."

Therefore, we ought not to be surprised by the opposition to the Gospel that we may find in contemporary culture (cf. 1 Pet. 4:12: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you").  Nor should we get nostalgic about some supposed, idealized perfect age that is now long gone (cf. Eccl. 7:10: "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?' For it is not from wisdom that you ask this").  What we should do is exercise some faith, stand up, and wage the "war of love" (the Gospel) in our own time.

2.  Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8:
R. (6b) The Lord upholds my life.
O God, by your name save me,
and by your might defend my cause.
O God, hear my prayer;
hearken to the words of my mouth.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
For the haughty men have risen up against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they set not God before their eyes.
R. The Lord upholds my life.

Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord sustains my life.
Freely will I offer you sacrifice;
I will praise your name, O LORD, for its goodness.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
Unsurprisingly, Psalm 54 is a todah or thanksgiving psalm, which according to ancient tradition was sung or composed by David when he was fleeing from Saul, his persecutor.  It's a short psalm.  In vv. 1-3, David cries out to God for deliverance from his enemies.  In vv. 4-5, he expresses confidence that God will hear him.  In vv. 6-7, something seems to have changed, because now he speaks as though God has already delivered him.  He promises to offer a thank offering for the salvation that God has granted him.  This "thank offering" anticipates our "thank offering," the Eucharist.

Psalm 54 reminds us of God's faithfulness to David, who--like us--underwent sufferings and persecutions of many kinds, even to the point of running for his life on many occasions.  But the God who delivered David still hears us when we take on our own lips David's very prayers. By faith, we experience in this Eucharistic sacrament the deliverance from death for which David praised God.

3. The Second Reading is James 3:16-4:3:
Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure,
then peaceable, gentle, compliant,
full of mercy and good fruits,
without inconstancy or insincerity.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who cultivate peace.

Where do the wars

and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions
that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
We tend to idealize the apostolic age as a time when there were no problems in the Church, because the direct rule of the apostles supposedly solved every issue that arose.  However, that's not the actual picture we see when we read read the letters Paul and the other apostles wrote to the churches.  The problems they address are frequently similar to those we face today.  
James speaks of "wars and conflicts."  He may mean internal struggles within each Christian, or struggles within the local church, or both.  One of the central problems James identifies is "jealousy", "selfish ambition", "covetousness", and "envy", which are all different aspects of the same sinful reality.  This sin of envy causes internal spiritual struggle as well as struggle with other persons.  We want what others have, and try to take it forcibly rather than receive in peace from God.  We don't receive from God, however, because we ask with wrong motives, with the intention of self-indulgence. 

This reading from James is a good match for the Gospel Reading, where we will see the disciples themselves arguing out of "selfish ambition" and "jealousy" concerning who is the greatest.   Jesus will put in their midst a child who is "peaceable, gentle, and compliant," and commend the child as an example for those who would lead in the Church.  It is also characteristic of children that they ask their parents for what they need.  That, too, is a model for us; to ask our heavenly Father for what we need, rather than struggle for it in anger.
4. The Gospel Reading is Mark 9:30-37:
Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
"The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise."
But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.
It is almost humorous—almost, but not really—that the disciples cannot understand Jesus' "saying" here, because he is not using a parable, metaphor, or any other literary device.  He teaches them plainly and literally about the passion, death, and resurrection, yet they cannot figure it out.

The disciples have real trouble understanding Jesus.  Sometimes they take him literally when he is speaking in figures:
15 And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”  16 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.”
But here in today's Gospel, they cannot understand his literal saying, because they think he is speaking in figures.  Thus, the struggle of biblical interpretation—concerning what to interpret literally, and what figuratively—began already with the disciples.

Part of the reason the disciples cannot understand Jesus here is that the their sensibilities, just like our own, are offended and repulsed by the notion that God's Chosen One should have to suffer and die.  We are also offended and repulsed by the notion that we might have to suffer and die with God's Chosen One!  It is all so paradoxical and counter-intuitive.  We'd rather live in a world where good guys always win and bad guys always lose, rather than this world, where the good often suffer.

Yet the disciples, and we ourselves, should not forget: "after his death the Son of Man will rise"!  There is truth, there is vindication, there is final justice and final mercy—but it requires faith to believe in it, because it will not be visible until we pass through the curtain of death.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
"What were you arguing about on the way?"
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
"If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
"Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me."
As we mentioned above, the disciples here are falling into "selfish ambition."  They have a worldly notion of what it means to be a leader, of what it means to be in authority.  They think of it in terms of self-aggrandizement and personal privilege.  Jesus turns their paradigm on it's head. "If you wish to be first, be the last of all and the servant of all."

Then Jesus, who is the "first" of all of them, compares himself to a little child: "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me ..."  There is a connection between Jesus' teaching on leadership and the example of the little child (cf. Is. 11:6: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them) that the other Gospels make more explicit.  To be "the last of all and the servant of all" is to make oneself like a little child.

Let's ponder what being like a little child means.  Children have little or no money.  They don't boss others around, but have to obey what their parents and other authorities say.  They are also too young for, and do not engage in, marital relations.  So we might say: they are poor, obedient, and chaste.

That's why it seems to me there is a certain genius in what the Church asks of her elite spiritual "commandos": poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The vows of religious life are the vows of a spiritual childhood.  And while diocesan priests do not take these three vows in the same form, they do commit themselves de facto to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their bishop; so what we are saying applies to them as well.  The Church turns to her priests and religious for leadership; these persons are qualified for leadership, in part, because they have made themselves "last and servant of all" by committing themselves to a life of perpetual "childhood."  The vows of religious life are profoundly rooted in the Gospel Jesus preached.

But of course, this Gospel Reading as implications for everyone, no matter what our state in life.  Though there are many angles we could develop, let's content ourselves for now with meditating on the example of spiritual childhood, of making ourselves "last" and "servant."

We are surrounded by many sufferings, trials, persecutions direct and indirect.  They may come from enemies, as was the situation for the author of Wisdom in our First Reading, or for David in the Psalm.  The struggles may come from other members of the church, as we saw in the Second Reading, or even from rivalry among those who ought to be setting a good example as leaders of the Church (i.e. the apostles) as we see in the Gospel.  Or, we may struggle internally, as St. James points out.  In whatever form, we find the truth of Jesus words: "In this world, you will have trouble" (John 16:33a).

We can respond to this trouble by becoming bitter, angry, hardened, or discouraged, or losing faith and giving up entirely.  But the Reading this Sunday call us to walk with Jesus to our cross as "children."  What does this mean in practice?  One virtue highlighted in the Readings is gentleness: the righteous man in Wisdom is tested for his "gentleness"; James highlights "gentleness" as a characteristic of the Wisdom that is above; Jesus sets an example of gentleness in embracing the little child in the Gospel Reading.  Perhaps gentleness is an attribute of spiritual childhood we could focus on in the coming week: learning to respond to hostility with a soft answer, to fight the urge to lash out in anger when offended, to accept misfortunes or contradictions willingly rather than with reluctance.  This isn't possible on our own power: we will need to pray a lot for God's strength, for the grace of the Holy Spirit, and meditate on Jesus' words of encouragement: "But be of good cheer!  I have overcome the world" (John 16:33b).

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