In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, the Lord illuminates the route to greatness, and the route is an overturning of the world’s standards of greatness and the world’s means of achieving greatness. The Lord’s route is humility, innocence, and service. And he shows this in several ways in the reading.
Firstly, the Lord foretells the route he will follow, the way of his own suffering, death, and finally his resurrection: “…he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’” This is, first of all, a straightforward foretelling of what is going to happen to Jesus. But it also lays the groundwork for his subsequent teaching in this reading: that the way to consolation, and indeed to greatness, lies through humility and suffering in the service of others.
Secondly, the very circumstances of this reading teach the same lesson. Jesus and his disciples are travelling “through Galilee,” and at the end of their journey they come to the village of Capernaum – a village named for the prophet Nahum, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for consolation. This shows that consolation is the destination of the spiritual life; it is the state toward which we must orient ourselves, and which we can achieve by the toil of our spiritual journey.
Thirdly, when Jesus and his disciples arrive at Capernaum, he teaches this lesson in perfectly explicit terms: “He sat down and called to them the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’”
And to make the point more clearly, Jesus places a child in the midst of the disciples, he takes the child “in his arms” and he says to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” The Lord here drives home the point about lowliness, humility, and innocence. His disciples are not to embrace the world’s standards of greatness. We are rather to be imitators of God, and God looks on the heart, exalting the lowly and thwarting the proud. This is one of God’s “favorite” activities: casting down what the world has raised up, and raising up what the world has cast down. God’s ways are not our ways, but by his grace – and our cooperation with it – our ways are conformable to his. We can become like him. And as his disciples, we are to learn to value childlikeness: lowliness, innocence, meekness, and humility.
Once again, we are faced with the realization that the incarnation of God – the person of Jesus Christ – is the source, content, and object of our life of faith. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” (Matthew 11.29). The creator and king of the universe became a man and submitted himself to being “delivered into the hands of men” and killed. And once again: the reason he did this was so that we might be renewed in the God-likeness in and for which we are created (cf. Gen. 1.26; 1 John 3.2).
What is it, therefore, that God “casts down”? It is the whole economy of this world and its rulers – the standards and systems of value that hold sway in secular culture and in secular hearts, where we hold in honor the satisfaction of our appetites: material wealth, sexual gratification, power and social status. This is what the Lord will cast down: the kingdom of it, and the value system around which its built. And he casts it down wherever he finds it: both on the grand scale of society and culture, but also within us. And this initial step in the process of our healing can be painful, because it means learning NOT to find consolation in the places in which we are accustomed to looking for it.
It is important to say that none of these things (money, sex, power, status) are evil in themselves. What is evil is their misuse and abuse, and more to the point, their being set up as ends in themselves, and the honor in which we hold people who have obtained them, BECAUSE they have obtained them. But these things themselves, like the whole of creation, can be “baptized” – they can acquire their appropriate goodness, when we learn to orient them properly, if we can learn to use them to the glory of God.
But those who regard earthly satisfactions as ends in themselves are those who “reason unsoundly” as it says in the Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon – those who say: “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. 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. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.”
And in today’s epistle reading, St. James says, “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
In place of this system of friendship-with-the-world, the Lord will establish – and HAS established – a kingdom of justice and peace, where “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21.4). And the way to this kingdom, the means of its attainment, is humility, innocence, and service, for the sake and in the power of Jesus.
An aspect of this is our affinity for the truth – our deference to the fact that the form of this world is passing away, that the wise die also, and that there is no ultimate satisfaction in anything that moths or rust can consume or that thieves can break in and steal (cf. Matthew 6.19ff). If we desire to be fulfilled, we have to look for fulfillment outside the world. In the verses immediately preceding the beginning of today’s epistle reading, St. James says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Let us therefore look to Jesus, and allow his life to live itself within us. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.