Our gospel today follows on from the third passion/resurrection prediction in Mark 10:32-34. In that light it is important to remember that Mark always depicts Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and the Cross. We need to read the two stories in today’s gospel in that light: the story of the Zebedee brothers’ desire for power, and Christ’s saying about true greatness. The long form contains both. The short form contains only the saying about being a servant and a slave. On the surface the story of the Zebedees is one of ambition and seeking power. But it quickly turns into a story of persecution and martyrdom, of suffering and cross, part of Mark’s description of the path of discipleship and true spiritual leadership. The true disciple/leader knows that spiritual greatness and humble self-sacrifice go together. The greatest is the least, the first is the last. Unfortunately, every time Jesus spoke about the Cross his disciples’ thoughts turned to glory. Did the Zebedees understand? Do we? Were they blind to Jesus’ paradox? The true disciple understands paradox. The true disciple also understands that genuine prayer changes us, makes us more like Christ. Are we ready to serve? Are we ready to take up our own cross and follow Jesus? Why are we shocked when people reject the faith community because they see hypocrisy and arrogance instead of gentleness and healing? It was ever so!
Our gospel today confronts us with the ancient rivalry between riches and reign of God. The longer form of today’s gospel has three messages: the story of the rich/sad young man, the image of the camel and the eye of the needle, and sayings about the rewards of discipleship. The shorter form leaves out this third part. What is at work here is a radical teaching about the Christian attitude to wealth and social ethics. And all of this takes place on the way to Jerusalem. In the first story we meet Jesus as a real human being, a prophet who is not moved by flattery but is concerned to teach people about God, the Good One, the Holy One. Note the personal nature of the man’s question and Jesus’ reply. Jesus invites the man to a new stage of spiritual development. It is by going to God alone that the good is found. Attitudes to wealth and attachments to wealth need to be radically changed if the disciple is serious about journeying into God and the fullness of life. The camel story also underlines the same issues: does attachment to wealth make discipleship difficult or impossible? Are we dealing with a camel squeezing through a side gate or a rope trying to pass through the eye of an actual needle? And the rewards of discipleship? The answer is paradoxical: blessings and persecutions.
We should not hear this gospel as a sentimental romanticizing or idealizing of children, but as an embrace of Jesus for all those who have so status, no claims to make, no power to wield, and so are receptive to the great gift that is offered – the kingdom of God. With what have we been touched: with the distorted hope of the disciples for power, or with willingness to be “little ones” who are open to and receptive of the reigning presence of God?
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was teaching his disciples. He had already rebuked their weakness in faith describing them as an unbelieving generation. Now he began to teach them about humility in service taking a little child as his example. His message is, anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. It is at this point that we begin today’s passage. Note what happens. It is as if John interrupts Jesus, drawing attention to himself. It is as if he is trying to change the subject, as if he is resisting what Jesus is trying to say. Try an experiment. Open your Bible and read Mark 9:35-37, then skip John’s story and Jesus’ reply about the cup of water to read verses 42-48. The message is clear: to forbid the exorcist is akin to making a little one stumble! In our day the Church has colluded with much suffering among the little ones and the vulnerable and needs to meditate long and hard on Mark’s teaching. Are we open-minded disciples on the way who understand the paradox of the child or mean-spirited disciples getting in people’s way? Are we approachable, truly open to Jesus’ way or are we seeking to impose our own more rigid and exclusive visions? Or do we continue to collude with corruption and cover-up? The time for changing the subject like John is long over!
The Czech theologian Tomas Halik says, “If we never had the feeling that what Jesus wants of us is absurd, crazy, and impossible, then we’ve probably either been too hasty in taming or diluting the radical nature of his teaching with soothing intellectualizing interpretations, or have too easily forgotten to what extent our thinking, customs, and actions rooted ‘in this world.’” Jesus offers “God’s thinking,” the thinking by which we save our lives by losing them and build a kingdom whose divine power is seen as human weakness.
Today we reflect on the first of two miracle stories that are found only in Mark. The other is the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. While the other evangelists depict Jesus as healing solely through a word in these two stories Mark depicts him employing healing technique. But Mark is also concerned with the journey of the disciples and in these two stories suggests that they were deaf and blind. Where does discipleship begin? What am I deaf (or blind) to in the gospel, in the teaching of Jesus? Do my ears need to be opened? Does my tongue need to be released? What aspects of Christian belief do I refuse to speak? How defensive am I? How taciturn? Can I say about Jesus, He has done all things welleven if scandals are rife in the Church? The challenge today is to seek ways to be open to Jesus’ loving touch, to let Jesus break the chain that keeps my tongue a prisoner of culture, to praise God.
Our gospel passage today begins with an introduction on Jewish practices for Mark’s gentile audience. Note also that the quotation from Isaiah 29:13 comes from the Greek translation familiar to gentile Christians rather than the Hebrew familiar to Jesus and the first disciples. We then encounter one of several controversies Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, this one focussed on traditional purification rituals. And this is where the link to the first reading comes to the fore: You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition. Unfortunately, phariseeism is a risk for every believer, something that happens every time we turn the gospel into a list of dos and don’ts and judge people who in our view do not keep the rules. Look at the state of the Church in Ireland and elsewhere for a reality check. We all hold onto patterns, processes, institutions and behaviours that have nothing to do with the gospel. Mark then offers us a parable about the key significance of the inner life. It is what is in the heart that counts, and it is the heart that determines our Christian and human integrity. We forget that the inner life becomes real though concrete gestures grounded in love, empathy, generosity and compassion. It can also reveal the hard heart, the closed mind, the rigid attitude, and the victory of darkness. Where do we stand when radical change is needed? Jesus is always doing something new. Are we truly open to his loving action?
Once again, we are listening to the discourse at Capernaum on the Bread from heaven. By now, the disciples knew that they had to make a choice, one that proved far from easy. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” They took Jesus literally, following their own frames of reference. How do we cope with our own human nature, our own limitations? How do we manage our own emotional immaturity? Because what is at stake here is not so much Eucharist as sacrament, but us confronted by Jesus as heavenly Wisdom incarnate, God’s true revelation. That is one reason why this passage ends with many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. That is one reason why this passage ends with a confession from Peter on behalf of the Twelve: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Here is the stark choice. Do we stay with Jesus intentionally as Peter did and the Twelve, or do we go our own way as many are doing in our own days? Do we follow Jesus or do our own thing? Am I an intentional disciple choosing Spirit and Life in Christ? The choice is always ours.
There is a Oneness between God and Jesus, and this makes all the difference. Those who truly know God know Jesus as Son of God. At the end of last week’s gospel he said, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. The people’s, or rather their leaders’ murmured response opening our gospel today reveals more than a lack of awareness and understanding. It is part of a pattern of rejection: Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? In effect, how could he be the son of God? Jesus’s response is twofold. He first appeals to God’s authority as the one who sent him. Then he suggests that understanding who he is, is a matter of cooperating with God’s grace. Some, like the woman at the well, get it. Others, like Nicodemus, do not. There are those who have learned from God and are drawn to Jesus, drawn to the One who is the Bread of Life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. Eucharist brings us to the heart of Trinity and the transforming dance of a vast, undreamed of, eternal Love. Manna was for a specific time. Eucharist is forever. Do we get the message? Or do we sit murmuring?
In the Jewish tradition the manna in the desert was associated with the giving of the Torah, and the wisdom of God is often portrayed by the metaphor of food. While speaking of the bread of life, Jesus use language of believing, drawing near, and listening, terms associated more with assimilation of wisdom than eating. Full participation in eating the body drinking the blood of Jesus follows upon personal commitment and love which draws a person to absorb the teaching of Jesus and imitate his life given for others.