ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Like an External Conscience are the Good Among Us

WISDOM 2:12, 17-20
JAMES 3:16-4:3
MARK 9:30-37

John Wesley (1703-1791 C.E.), the founder of Methodism, composed a simple motto by which he tried to live: “Do all the good you can; By all the means you can; In all the ways you can; In all the places you can; At all the times you can; To all the people you can; As long as ever you can.” Wesley remained earnest in his efforts to become more like Christ who was described as someone who “went about doing good. . . because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

Truly good people are who they are and do what they do because they are responsive to the presence of God, enabling and empowering them. As C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, Fontana Books, London: 1952) once explained, “Believers are in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. These hope, by being good, to please God, if there is one; or—if they think there is not—at least they hope to deserve approval from men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God loves us because we are good, but that God makes us good because he loves us” (sic). While there are some among us for whom goodness has become a lived reality, there are also others among us who second-guess that goodness.

Consider for a moment, some of the names by which truly good people are all too frequently labeled by contemporary society... Goody-goody, Goody-two-shoes, Teacher’s pet; Show off; Saint So and So; Apple polisher; etc. etc. In addition to being burdened with pejorative monikers such as these, the motivation of good people is often questioned and their sincerity held suspect. Those whose authentic goodness is expressed in words and works of goodness are accused of garnering attention or of trying to make a name for themselves in the community. Misjudged, the good are also, at times, mistreated or ignored. Because their very presence causes a certain discomfort, they are sometimes excluded from conversations and social gatherings. By virtue of their integrity, and because their holy and wholesome lives confront us with our own faults and failures, the good people among us become the innocent victims of our wrath, abuse and, at times, hatred. Like an external conscience, their goodness makes our sinfulness all the more obvious by comparison.

As today’s first reading indicates, the author of Wisdom was keenly insightful as regards the attitude of the wicked toward those who are good and just. “Like white corpuscles in the bloodstream rushing to attack a foreign body, the wicked fall on the just, whose ways differ so from theirs” (John E. Rybolt, “Wisdom”, The Collegeville Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MS: 1989).

Also aware of this propensity and the havoc it can wreak within a community, the author of James (second reading) calls his readers to cultivate wisdom. A God-given gift, wisdom encourages innocence, peace, sincerity and kindly deeds while keeping jealousy, strife and conflicts in check. Wisdom is the ability to see and to judge all things as God sees and judges; one of the foremost fruits of wisdom is goodness.

In the gospel (Mark), Jesus counseled his disciples that true wisdom and therefore true goodness are best reflected in those who are the most innocent among us. When his followers failed to comprehend the wisdom of God’s saving plan, i.e., that it would involve the suffering and death of Jesus (Mark 9: 30-32), and when they argued over who was the most important among them, Jesus offered them the example of a child. Remarkably, Jesus’ identified with the child: “Whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but him who sent me.”

Guileless and totally lacking in self-importance, the trusting innocence of a child’s heart is the place where believers can meet both Christ and God. It is there that the docile will experience the power and presence of God; it is there that would-be disciples will learn what it means to be good, to do good, and to persevere in goodness in spite of the hostility of those less responsive to God.

WISDOM 2:12, 17-20

French-born American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968 C.E.) once said, “You can tell a saint by the way he sits and stands, by the way he picks things up and hold them in his hands.” In other words, saints are ordinary people who have an uncommon talent for doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. The saint, or just one, featured in this excerpted text from Wisdom, was not been credited with feats of heroism or bravado. On the contrary. it was in the banal and mundane circumstances of day-to-day living that this just person excelled and through which he/she brought praise to the God who gave him/her life.

The first century B.C.E. author of wisdom lived during a time and in a place (probably Alexandria in Egypt) when his/her Jewish contemporaries were emulating heroes and searching for meaning outside of Judaism. Greek thinkers and philosophies had become very appealing and many Jews were attracted to them. In order to stem the tide of Hellenism that threatened to wash away or at least dilute their heritage, Israel’s sapiential authors wrote in order to encourage their Jewish brothers and sisters in the diaspora (lands outside Israel) to retain and preserve their religious traditions despite the lure of other cultures and philosophies.

To that end, the Greek-speaking Jew who wrote the book of Wisdom, led his/her readers on a midrashic or meditative tour of their religious, cultural, and historic past while interpreting that past in light of their contemporary circumstances and challenges. Today’s first reading is part of the author’s extended meditation on Isaiah 52-66, wherein he shared the prophet’s thoughts on justice and retribution and informed them with new insight.

Traditionally, Hebrew thinkers maintained that the lives of both the just and unjust were the same beyond the grave, viz., a nebulous existence apart from God in sheol. Rewards for the good and retribution for the evil were thought to take place in the midst of the human experience. The just were blessed with length of life, wealth, prestige, etc; the unjust were thought to be burdened with misfortune. But, as Addison G. Wright (“Wisdom”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990) has noted, this theory was not borne out by the hard facts of experience. In the interest of reality, it had to be admitted that the good often suffer while the evil prosper. Numerous solutions were advanced in explanation of this problem and a variety of texts began to emerge which expressed a hope for a life with God beyond the grave (Psalms 49:16; 17:23-24; Isaiah 26:11; Daniel 12:2; 2 Maccabees 7).

The author of Wisdom synthesized and built upon these texts in order to present what is probably the most extensive treatment on the subject in the Hebrew Scriptures. Unfortunately, today’s excerpted selection from Wisdom contains only hints of the author’s recognition that immortality is God’s gift to the just ones who are faithful and wise: “Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. . . for according to his own words, God will take care of him” (vv. 17, 20). Clearer insight into the author’s ideas can be seen in Wisdom 2:23 as well as in 3:1, 4; 1; 8:13, 17; 15:3.

Like the suffering just one of the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) the featured saint of today’s first reading would, in the end, be vindicated by God. But before that time the very tenor of his/her life would prove to be a reproach to the wicked. Because of the just one’s integrity, perseverance and fidelity to God, despite the animosity and resentment of others less faithful, this person has been regarded as a type of Christ and therefore a model to be emulated by all who hope to share in the joys of life after death with Christ.

JAMES 3:16-4:3

Ideally, Christian living together in community are to be characterized by the phrase, “See, how they love one another!” Realistically, however, this ideal is often overshadowed by envy, animus and conflict. The first century author of James was convinced that the reason believers fall short of the ideal to which they are called is because they have refused to acquiesce to God’s will and have chosen instead to gratify their own desires. Earlier in his letter, James had identified the root of all temptation as desire (1:14-15) and in today’s second reading, he has returned to this theme.

As Jerome H. Neyrey (“James”, The Collegeville Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1989) has explained, James believed that where there is a lack of wisdom (3:16-18) conflicts abound and these conflicts stem from unbridled desire. James was not alone in this belief; ancient moralists agreed with him. Philo (ca 30 B.C.E. - 45 C.E.) called desire the worst of all the passions and asked, “Is it not because of this passion that relations are broken and natural goodwill changes into desperate enmity? that great and populous countries are desolated by domestic dissensions? and land and sea filled with ever new disasters from naval battles and land campaigns? All the world’s wars have flowed from one source -- desire for money or glory or pleasure!” Plato (428-348 B.C.E.) concurred that “the sole cause of wars, revolutions and battles is nothing other than desire.” Cicero wrote, “It is insatiable desires that overturn men, families and even states.”

In response to those who blamed such desires and the temptations that resulted from them on God or on Satan (“The devil made me do it!”), James insisted that the roots of evil and sin lie within the human heart. Therefore, it is within the human heart that evil must be resisted and repelled. “Despite conversion and baptism, Christians are not perfect and must strive to let God’s grace rule their hearts progressively in every way” (J. Neyrey, op. cit.). One of the means by which believers can open their hearts to the gift of grace is to seek the wisdom that comes from above (3:17).

As William Barclay (“James”, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) observed, James used no less than eight descriptive words to help his readers to understand the preciousness of God-given wisdom. Hagnos or innocent is that quality of wisdom which is so cleansed of all ulterior motives and self that it has become pure enough to welcome God’s presence. Eirenikos or peaceable refers to that wisdom which fosters and sustains right relationships among humankind and between God and humanity. Epieikes, translated here (v. 19) as lenient, is the wisdom to know how to temper justice with mercy. The person who is epieikes knows how and when to forgive even when the letter of the law or strict justice gives him/her the right to condemn. The wisdom that comes from above is also eupeithes or docile; the person blessed with this gift is willing to listen and learn and ready to obey. True wisdom is also eleos, i.e. rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are its fruit. As Barclay (op. cit.) has noted, the Greeks defined eleos as pity for the person who suffers unjustly. But the Christian view is more comprehensive; believers in Jesus are called to that degree of eleos which is compassionate to all who suffer, even those suffering through their own fault. Moreover, in Christian thought, eleos or sympathy issues forth in practical help (kindly deeds) for the sufferer. Finally, true wisdom is adiakritos or impartial and anupokritos, i.e., without hypocrisy or sincere. The believer blessed with this gift does not waver or vacillate; he/she chooses a course of action and sees it through, honestly and without pretense or deception.

When authentic wisdom is recognized and appreciated within the community, peace rules (3:13) and the conflicts and disputes (4:1) that are instigated by unchecked desires are revoked. Ever-practical, ever-challenging, James’ wise counsel is as pertinent today as when it was first offered almost 2000 years ago.

MARK 9:30-37

Soon after the birth of her brother, four-year-old Sachi began to ask her parents to leave her alone with the new baby. Worried that she might feel jealous and want to hit and shake the newborn, her parents said no. But the little girl’s pleas to be left alone with her brother became more urgent and since she treated the baby lovingly and gently, her parents decided to allow it. Delighted, Sachi went into the baby’s room and closed the door, but it opened slightly, allowing her curious parents to peek in and listen. They watched as their daughter put her face close to her baby brother’s and whisper, “Baby, tell me what God feels like. I’m starting to forget.” (Dan Millman, Chicken Soup For the Soul, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL: 1993). The innocence of this little four-year old-girl is disarming, particularly to adults grown crusty and cynical with age. When Jesus recommended that his disciples emulate the little child that he set in their midst, he reminded them of the innocence that they had long since outgrown. Indeed, their innocence had been replaced by ambition as to who was most important among them. By offering the example of the child and by calling them to be the servant of all, Jesus challenged them to rethink their attitude toward him, toward God and toward one another. Those who would rank first among them as leader must become the least among them.

In addition to its example of innocence and humility, the child taught a further lesson. In the ancient world, children were the property of their parents; without rights or status, they were totally dependent on others. To receive and welcome a child “is to perform a good act for an insignificant person, without hope of earthly reward” (Daniel Harrington “The Gospel According to Mark”, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990).

At first glance, it may appear that Jesus’ teaching about innocence and welcoming the insignificant (vv. 33-37) is out of place in the context of his passion prediction (vv. 30-32). However, the prediction of his coming death was actually elucidated by Jesus’ lesson regarding the child and vice versa.

Talya or child in Aramaic can also mean servant. To behave as a talya (servant) and to welcome even someone as insignificant (according to the standards of that time) as a talya (child) is to learn the reason for the cross (vv. 31-32) and its lesson of discipleship. If Jesus would willingly set aside his rights, status and ambitions in order to submit to a death that would bring salvation, so must those who would be his disciples do likewise. By their willingness to welcome and to serve God’s least children, the disciples would, in fact, be welcoming and serving Christ and the One who sent him (v. 37). Through their compassionate service of the little ones, the disciples would achieve, not the importance over which they had argued, but a share in the power of Jesus. If they would accept the challenge of humble service and discipleship, they would thereby penetrate the mystery of the cross.

As Mark indicates in today’s gospel, at this juncture in their lives, the disciples failed to understand Jesus and were afraid to ask questions (v. 32). Only later (i.e. at the cross) would they more clearly comprehend the person and mission of Jesus and the meaning of their discipleship. By repeatedly identifying the disciples’ confusion as regards Jesus’ purpose, the evangelist offered a reason as to why Jesus was not recognized and hailed as Messiah during his ministry; scholars have dubbed this literary technique: the Marcan messianic secret. However the repeated references to the disciples’ obtuseness may also serve Mark’s contemporary readers in another way. If they, who traveled with him, heard his words and witnessed his works did not fully comprehend his plan at every moment, then we, who are sometimes similarly lacking in insight in the day-to-day challenges of discipleship, should not grow discouraged. Full understanding will come in the measure that we set aside self-importance in favor of service, and cynicism in favor of innocence and trust.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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