Prv 31: 10-31; Ps 1; Jms 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a; MARK 9: 30-37
May it be Your Will, Eternal Our God, that this be a good and sweet year for us. AMEN.
“Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” These lessons again sound more like those from the Wisdom or Jewish tradition, than something from a standard idea of Christianity. The readings remind us that much of Christianity comes from these Jewish roots, and also that we here are in an increasingly fast rush to the end of Pentecost. To make dramatic that annual observance of end-times, the tone of these weeks sounds decisive and minatory.
A side observation first. There is always a Sabbath day between the beginning of Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s called Shabbat Shula, and it always has the same readings, one from Hosea about God’s faithfulness and compassionate love, and one from Micah about God’s pardoning and unswerving loyalty to Abraham. Those readings are between introducing the celebration of a sweet new year and spending a sober day contemplating one’s sins and failing. The readings assure those coming to repent that God is faithful to them, and is always merciful. Confessing one’s shortcomings and sins in the light of these comforting readings makes people able to search their year, memories, and relationships thoroughly to seek forgiveness and make amends.
Additionally the Micah reading begins, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?” That beginning, “Who is a God like you” affirms the right, the duty, and the essence of humanity to ask questions. It models behavior that is right for people to do. It’s what people are supposed to do, especially noted in this context of preparing for the most solemn day of the year, the day of self-examination.
That’s the backdrop of heading towards the end of Pentecost. James urges us to, “You show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” We are to be people who delight in the law of the Lord, and meditate on that law day and night. Jesus would have heard this pattern to understand the relationship between the Holy One and all of us. He had come to understand that he, however, would be betrayed and killed, and after three days would rise again. He wanted to let his disciples know that ahead of time, to lessen the horror and shock of his death, and to teach them what discipleship, faithfulness, and working whole heartedly to bring about God’s holy reign could lead to.
To tell his disciples this, he had to interrupt them. They were deeply embarrassed, however, to admit they’d been arguing about which of them was the greatest, but they didn’t dare ask Jesus any questions. He had just issued this second prediction of his own death, and they were silent, too embarrassed to ask any questions. They all had been raised in the framework of Micah’s valuing questioning, and yet of the many questions to ask about what Jesus had said, they were too awkward to ask anything.
Think of the Rover currently exploring Mars. It’s called “Curiosity.” The child who suggested the name pointed out that it’s curiosity that distinguishes humans from other creatures. People can ask questions and then search for answers relentlessly, and it’s what humans are created to do.
The disciples didn’t do this most natural of all human characteristics; they didn’t ask questions. They did the next thing people do instead, they argued among themselves about something else. How human and real this argument sounds. I’d guess all parents of more than one child have heard their kids arguing about which of them did mom/dad love best. Who’s loved best, who’s the favorite, and who’s the best? We all have the knowledge to say, “Since each of you is so different, I love you each the very best, in your own way—I just can’t compare.” Jesus knew that’s what they were really asking, but that wasn’t his agenda. It’s just an insecure question that individuals always ask and wonder about from their parent, leader, and God.
Jesus, though, was talking about discipleship and service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” We’ve heard that word “servant” translated from Bible sources before as “slave,” but that’s not the word here in Greek. It’s the word translated “deacon,” “the one who serves.” Think of parents caring for children. Whichever parent does the constant basic work for a small child is pushed aside for the more rarely seen parent, the one who is seen as more special. The parent who’s at work all day is greeted with a flying hug, while the one who’s done the dishes, diapers, and the repetitious work of childcare is ignored. Children know that parent is there, is in heart and mind, but the special parent needs to be rewarded for showing up. The parent who’s done the service is last, while the one who’s often done less child work is first. People subsume themselves into the service, and rarely get to be stars. The ER person who holds a child’s hand through the terrors of being in an ER, being strapped to a board to keep the child from wiggling dangerously, and stays there until a frantic parent shows up, and an imposing medical presence arrives to fix the problem, just stays there holding a hand and just narrating who’s coming and going, is basic, is last in the cast of characters, but is first in service to the scared child. The child barely recognizes that person as other than a hand-holder, but that one who serves is the one who gives the child true comfort. What that person does isn’t special or spectacular, and yet is the service that keeps the rest of the action calm and workable. Whether, in contrast, conspicuous dramatic people really turn out to be last, although first in starring roles, is less clear. It’s not so simple or automatic, or first/last, given the myriad of possibilities in between first and last. Some of this first/last dichotomy is just rhetoric.
Back to questions, curiosity and the Gospel. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus is demonstrating that curiosity about him would be natural. His disciples were urged to be questioning him, his actions, his source, his meaning, his servant ministry, and his death to come. “They were to show” as James instructed, “by their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” The description in Proverbs is of a “capable wife.” Her work and actions are independent, hard working, and community serving. “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” Jesus knows her as a model of diaconal service, not demeaning work, nor is she described in a sexist way. She surely does work and has been treated as last, as a mere woman, and then by feminists as doing distained “woman’s work.”—Years ago, in the 70’s, we gave a dinner party, and everyone had to perform something. I said it was my idea and that dinner was my performance. One couple was very, very late. The doctor husband was late, and his wife was barely speaking to him as they arrived. When it was his turn, his wife looked at him to imply he hadn’t prepared anything, but he had. He read this passage, and we all knew we’d been manipulated, but it was sort of an apology and maybe intended as a put-down too; we all wanted to throw something at him, but he’d won. She, this capable wife, is the kind of person Jesus calls us each to be, doing service for others to such a level that the service is remembered, and the person sacrificed to be recalled last. That work makes her first, as is this exemplary capable wife. We hearing what we’re asked to do and be, can and must attempt these roles. They are within our tradition and the Wisdom/Jewish ones, and they come with both comfort and a pledge to us that using our humanity to be the best humans we can be is exactly what is called for us to do and be. Our sacrifices are to be those of humans: curiosity, wisdom, and hope, and our work always for those in need. That work is to be what we can do, and to such a degree that we’re remembered not by name or fame, but for the service we give to others. We are to understand and be comforted by the sure knowledge that the Holy One is ever merciful and faithful, and that Jesus is always near, showing us what to do. We are not to work beyond our capacity, but simply and directly, always asking questions naturally. Our service is not to be slave labor, done mindlessly, but that of a deacon, one called to serve, like a capable wife in effort, and a child in directness of response. Jesus is nearby to strengthen us in that work and wait for us in Paradise however and whatever we do: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 23 Sept 2012 St. John’s, Boston