By Father Donald Dilger
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Response: Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6-8; Second Reading: James 3:16-4:3; Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
The Old Testament Book of Wisdom is also known as ‘The Wisdom of Solomon.’ The latter name originated from Wisdom 9:7-12, part of a prayer describing a king who fits the description of Solomon in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. Solomon succeeded his father David to the throne and ruled from 961-922 B.C. The date of composition of the Book of Wisdom is sometime between 100-50 B.C. It was written for the numerous communities of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt. In time of composition, it is the last book of the Old Testament. Its attribution to Solomon follows a custom of claiming as authors important figures of the past. The author is unknown. Wisdom is one of a number of Old Testament books referred to in the Protestant tradition as Deuterocanonical (second canon). This implies secondary importance, so secondary that they are usually excluded from the Old Testament Canon in that tradition. The ‘Canon’ is the list of books accepted as authoritatively conveying divine revelation. They are not part of the Hebrew Old Testament but are found in the Greek versions. Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition accepts these books as canonical, therefore included in our Bibles.
The author of Wisdom wrote to his fellow Jews, whose faith was shaken by the cultural and religious practices of Egypt. Confronting them were schools of philosophy, mystery religions, astrology, advances in science, popular cults. There is evidence that some leading Jews had rejected their religion — a scandal to the faithful. The author defends Jewish belief and practice. In this Sunday’s segment of Wisdom, he composes a speech of the wicked — the apostates who ridiculed Jewish religious beliefs. They expressed loathing for the just, who reproached them for rejecting their faith. They planned to curse, torture and condemn to death the just man to see how he reacts to his condemnation. After all, they claimed, the just man said God would take care of him. Will his trust in God and his patience fail? If these ideas expressed by the wicked in the Book of Wisdom seem familiar, they should. Like other parts of the Old Testament, they became sources for the composition of the Passion Narratives in our gospels. This reading was selected to accompany Jesus’ second prediction of his approaching suffering and death.
The closing words of the first reading, “God will take care of him,” though spoken in derision, are picked up by Psalm 54 in a deeply devout plea of the psalmist. “O God, by your name save me, and by your might defend my cause. Hear my prayer. Listen to my words.” Even the wicked of the first reading are not forgotten by the response psalm. “Haughty men have risen up against me. Ruthless men seek my life. They do not set God before their eyes.” The psalmist expresses conviction that God hears and helps, “Behold, God is my helper.” He expresses his gratitude, “Freely I will offer you sacrifice and praise your name for its goodness.”
James continues to preach to his ‘parishioners.’ He rebukes them for jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder, every foul practice, greed, murder, envy, fighting, insincerity, unreliability. Other than murder, the rest could reflect an average gathering of sinful humanity. James blames their passions “making war within your members.” The qualities they should exhibit: peacefulness, gentleness, being agreeable, merciful. He adds a final diagnosis as to the cause of their sinfulness: “You ask but you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” A connection with today’s gospel was not intended but can be made. In their childish response to Jesus’ Passion prediction, the disciples fit into the group scolded by James.
In today’s gospel, Jesus takes time out for private instruction of his disciples. They are with him in Galilee, home province to them and to Jesus. Mark notes the retreat-like atmosphere, “He did not want anyone to know about it.” What was he teaching? The second prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. In last Sunday’s gospel, when he first broached this subject to them, they failed to grasp it. See Mark 8:32-33. Now, his second attempt. “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.” ‘Son of Man’ is a title of Jesus in all four gospels when he refers to himself. The original meaning: a human being. In the oracles of Ezekiel, God always addresses the prophet as ‘son of man.’ In the Book of Daniel, the title and the virtual person of the ‘son of man’ is a symbol for pious Jews undergoing persecution. There is a promise that they will overcome their persecutors and rule in an eternal kingdom. In extra-biblical literature that symbolic human being evolves into a conquering royal, who sets up his kingdom, and overcomes the enemies of his people.
Mark gives the ‘son of man’ title a new meaning. For him, the Son of Man is not only a symbol of victory after persecution and a royal conqueror. Mark may be the first to connect this august title with sufferings of the Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah’s four Songs of the Servant of the Lord. Those poems are foundational to the composition of the Passion Narratives. The Servant in those poems gives his life for his people and, in the end, is exalted. Thus, the title ‘Son of Man’ is appropriate for Jesus in a prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. How did the disciples react this time? Failure again. They were arguing about who was No. 1 among them. Jesus continues his instruction from a different angle — humility, service. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” He picks up a child, embraces the child, places it among them, and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. Whoever receives me, receives him who sent me.” In other words, they completely misunderstood him. What will happen to him has no relation to an earthly kingdom in which they will strive with each other for the highest positions of power. Greatness in his kingdom consists in serving others, like this child who cannot survive without those who take care of it.