The human heart longs for self-realization in the most brilliant manner, but disordered passions fill it with vain illusions. What should we do? Jesus shows us the secret for achieving authentic and lasting success.
Gospel of the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
30Jesus and His disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but He did not wish anyone to know about it. 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question Him. 33 They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. 35 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.” 36 Taking a child, He placed it in their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said to them 37 “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” (Mk 9:30-37).
I – Careful Preparation for Great Events
In the Gospel of this 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from the ninth chapter of St. Mark, we find a beautiful hymn to innocence and humility, virtues which the Divine Master presents as the high road to living a holy life and, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, to the crown of glory in Heaven.
Accompanied only by the Apostles, Jesus crossed Galilee incognito so as to avoid the incessant harassment of the crowds. He wanted to form His followers for the culminating moment of His mission, and so He created the conditions to keep them close to Him, united in an intense and pleasant fellowship.
Before their departure, Our Lord was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John (cf. Mk 9:2-8), showing them the splendour of His glory. For these disciples, Tabor had been such a great consolation that they wanted to build three tents and stay there in the light of the Lord glorified by the Father and by the representatives of the Law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Descending the mountain, Jesus forbade them to tell others what had happened until His Resurrection from the dead, but the three chosen ones did not understand the meaning of these words, because they were still unaware that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22).
The episode narrated by St. Mark – the exorcism of the mute spirit (cf. Mk 9:16-29) – prepared the Apostles for conflict and opposition. The demon’s tenacious resistance to their prayers and the atmosphere of confusion created by the Scribes and Pharisees until Jesus came on the scene showed them the need to pray with faith and commitment, since such demons could only be driven out by prayer.
Against this background of lights and shadows, of glory and struggle, the disciples walked discreetly through Galilee in intimate conversations with their Master. The moment had come to prepare them for the most tragic and sublime events in all of history.
II – A New School: Humility
Our Lord is the wisest and most skilled Teacher of all time. Knowing the spiritual immaturity of those who followed Him, He sought to create the supernatural and psychological conditions necessary for them to hear a proclamation of the utmost importance.
Without recollection it is impossible to hear God’s voice
30 Jesus and His disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but He did not wish anyone to know about it. 31 He was teaching His disciples…
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes in various passages the continuous stream of people who used to surround the Master and His disciples, to the point that they had no time “even to eat” (Mk 6:31). In these circumstances, the Good Shepherd’s zeal for souls shone forth in a special way, for He was always ready to sacrifice His own interests and even the most elementary needs of survival, such as feeding Himself, in order to do good to His neighbour; curing their illnesses, casting out demons and teaching the Word of God.
Nevertheless, on certain occasions the Apostles – those of that time and those throughout the centuries – needed to step back from events and devote themselves to recollection. Otherwise, the mission to evangelize could degenerate into what we could call the “heresy of works” and be transformed into mere social, charitable or recreational activities, emptied of their true content, which consists in the communication of grace from soul to soul.
Thus, St. Mark stresses in these verses the care of Our Lord for those who followed Him. In fact, His principal concern was focussed on them, who were closest to Him and who had the vocation to be His heralds, once they were sanctified, in the courageous proclamation of the Holy Gospel throughout the world.
Only in isolation can a recollected spirit be maintained and attention be paid to the gentle promptings of grace or the clear teachings coming from Heaven. Separated from the noise of crowded places, the disciples were able to hear a prophetic message of the highest order from the lips of the Incarnate Word.
The most sublime prophecy
31b … 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.”
What for today’s Catholics is a truth of Faith, fully accepted entirely fulfilled, to the disciples’ ears sounded like something enigmatic, difficult to comprehend.
The reality of a definitive resurrection, signifying complete victory over death, was not clear in their minds, perhaps because of the veil of mystery that shrouded post-mortem life for the Jews of the Old Covenant or, as seems more probable, because of the terrible influence of Greek culture on Hebrew society at the time.
It was the painful culmination of Our Lord’s mission, to be followed by the most glorious victory on the luminous morning of Easter. However, who could have imagined that the worker of so many miracles, cures and exorcisms would have to pass through the dark valley of death in order to defeat the devil and restore lost immortality to the children of Adam?
Minds dulled and wills weakened
32 But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question Him.
It was not the first time that the Apostles, faced with the prospect of the drama of the Cross, were scandalized. They only made room in their hearts for the atmosphere of human success, joy and excitement that was created around the Saviour when He performed wonders or made sublime speeches. St. Peter, for example, had been rebuked by Our Lord for having tried to dissuade Him from facing the Passion: “Get behind Me, Satan” (Mt 16:23), the Master said to him.
The hypothesis that Jesus would be persecuted, betrayed and killed clashed head-on with the triumphalist idea of a false political messiah, whose mission would be to restore Israel to social and economic hegemony, subjugating the peoples and attracting a flood of wealth to Jerusalem.
To pass through the crucible of suffering, failure and tragedy before conquering the glory of Heaven was a path too arduous and unreasonable for them. If Our Lord had demonstrated such dominion over nature, even over death, why not apply it to take power and act more effectively in favour of the earthly interests of the people? Had not the ancient judges Gideon, Samson and Jephthah acted thus? What sense would there be in being delivered into the hands of men to the point of death?
The disciples did not dare to ask. They were afraid of hearing an answer that would force them into a radical change of mentality, for which they were not in the least predisposed. Their attachment to the prevailing way of thinking, instilled by the decadent elites of Israel, robbed them of the freedom to delve more deeply into a question of capital importance, but which caused them the greatest aversion.
The Apostles were incapable of grasping the sublime horizon that Our Lord wished to unveil before their eyes, and still less the mortal hatred that, as a result of that same horizon, their enemies had for Him. Indeed, the new doctrine endowed with power, that the Son of God proclaimed, was filled with hope in eternal life and demanded the renunciation of personal interests as well as an unpretentious dedication that had to extend even to martyrdom. Such an idealistic and supernatural perspective undercut the excessively earthly and ambitious goals of the Pharisees and Scribes, who had fabricated for themselves a false myth of happiness and had an insatiable thirst for prestige and profit. That is why their hatred for the Messiah would be implacable and cruel, as the Book of Wisdom had foretold:
“For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves: […] ‘Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; […]. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us […]. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, He will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. […] Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’ Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray” (2: 1, 12-18, 20-21).
Self-love blinds and weakens
33 They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
The disciples were inwardly divided: they loved the Master, but they did not want to follow Him to the ultimate consequences; their self-giving was superficial and mixed with personal interests, associated with vanity. Thus they not only avoided asking about the prophecy of the Passion, but were carried away by ambition to the point of falling into a deplorable discussion, based on rivalry, about who would be the first among them. Each one wanted to know what his role would be in the future Church, if not in a restored kingdom of Israel, yearning to climb to the highest positions of prestige and authority. The delirium of command, child of pride, enslaved their still passionate hearts.
This exacerbated self-love blinded the interior gaze of the Apostles, preventing them from contemplating the panoramas unveiled by Our Lord regarding Himself when He spoke to them of His immolation and eternal triumph. Moreover, it was at the root of their apprehension at the tragic and magnificent prediction about their future. On the other hand, the will of those disciples was weak, because he who lets himself be dominated by pride and admires himself, omitting retribution to God for benefits received, is left with a weak heart and becomes incapable of firm resolutions and heroic attitudes. Hence the capital importance of humility, which is the root of all virtues. Presumption leads to softness and cowardice, while unpretentiousness serves as armour for the most daring and holy ventures.
A true disciple of Jesus Christ must live exclusively for His greater glory, obeying His precepts with vehement zeal. This is a logical and indispensable corollary of the First Commandment, for to love God above all things means to live for Him and not for ourselves, willing to face whatever struggles and sacrifices are necessary to make Him known, revered and exalted. This determination has as its consequence the immolation of vile and trivial selfish interests, which is an essential condition for our sanctification. In this way we will be imitators of Him who taught: “Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29).
Who is greater?
35 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.”
Before the Passion and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles’ mentality was contrary to the attitude recommended by the Divine Master in this verse. For them power had to be exercised with an iron fist, in an energetic, violent and imposing manner. Only a ruler with such characteristics would obtain success. Jesus destroys this erroneous concept, based on human pride, in order to teach His followers the true notion of authority and the virtuous way to exercise it.
For this reason, He established in His Church a visible hierarchy, which has at its summit the Holy Father, the Pope, and in successive degrees the bishops, priests and deacons. This hierarchy, however, though supremely respectable, must be distinguished by a spirit of service, and for this reason St. Gregory the Great chose for himself and his successors in the Papacy the title of Servant of the servants of God. Thus, the first is in some way the last by the fact of being at the disposal of all, as a humble servant, offering them the fruit of his ministry with generosity and giving himself without expecting anything in return, in imitation of Our Lord, who gave His life for men.
Here is an unprecedented way to attain the greatest success: be humble!
The glorification of innocence
36 Taking a child, He placed it in the their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said to them 37 “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.”
The magnificent and touching gesture of Incarnate Wisdom must have amazed the Apostles. To take a child, surround it with chaste tenderness and propose it as a worthy representative of Himself and of the Eternal Father, was an action at once unexpected, daring and charming. With it Our Lord intended to make a profound impression on minds and to move hearts hardened by discord.
The child is a symbol of innocence, detachment and trust. Little children are humbly dependent on their superiors and confide in them their childlike concerns because they love them with candour, when they see in them an authentic goodness. This filial abandonment was one of the most striking characteristics of the relationship between the God-Man and the Father, to the point that He exclaimed on the Cross: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). It was the cry of the most submissive and loving surrender of the best of children into the arms of the most perfect Father.
Therefore, that blessed child who had the grace to be embraced by Jesus could represent Him in all dignity, if received in His name. But not only that. He would also represent the Father, because those who trust God completely become one with Him.
The Saints are spiritually like the child of our Gospel, although they may have reached a venerable age, because they have placed their hopes in the Lord with the simplicity of an innocent child. And the people of God receive them with admiration, enthusiasm and tenderness, because they realize that whoever welcomes one of them welcomes the Son and the Father.
III – The Surest Path to Heaven
The Gospel of this 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time constitutes a great challenge for all believers. The teachings of the Divine Master, in words and actions, show us the path of innocence and humility as the privileged way to reach the heavenly Paradise. However, to become like children, unpretentious and ready to serve in everything, may seem a candid and easy ideal, but it is not.
Pride has such dynamism and is so deeply rooted in the human heart that only the grace of God can eradicate it. And what about the tendency to conform our way of thinking to the prevailing worldly opinion? Therefore, it becomes necessary to pray insistently and tenaciously, beseeching the Blessed Virgin for her powerful intercession to free us from the evil inclinations that enslave us to our own whims and to the follies of this world.
Moreover, an important virtue – which the Apostles lacked and which is scarce in Catholic circles today – is presented as the antidote to mediocrity and, consequently, to pride. It is hope.
The disciples were under the influence of a certain practical atheism, which prevailed among the Jews of that time because of the evil effluvia spread by the Sadducees and Pharisees. The expectation of the Redemption had been distorted by an earthly and political image of the future Messiah, which did not correspond to Israel’s true aspirations. Above all, the chosen people needed a spiritual salvation, which would purify them from their sins and open the doors to an endless, heavenly and angelic life. But the elites rejected this vision, thirsty as they were for power and pleasure. They lacked, therefore, the indispensable virtue of hope.
To break this influence, first of all Our Lord reveals to the Apostles His Passion, Death and Resurrection. A more supernatural panorama than this was impossible. Nevertheless, timid and restless, they remain silent. Then the Divine Master speaks to them of humility, exhorting them to become little like the child He had embraced.
If they had opened their hearts to the prospect of eternity, they would have been more humble and generous, for to win a prize as sublime as Heaven, any sacrifice or renunciation seems small. All the more so because Our Lord had promised that those who humbled themselves would be exalted to the thrones of the Angels.
It is difficult to be humble if one does not live with intensity and joy in the hope of definitive glory. On the other hand, only the humble find the key to true success in their lives and have open before them the doors of a blessed eternity.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, abyss of humility and Mother of Hope, assist and guide us so that, living more for Heaven than for this earth, we may be meek and humble of heart like her Son. Thus, having defeated the insidiousness of the devil and his followers, we will be able to reach, victorious, the exalted goal that is proposed to us: Heaven. ◊