Proper 20: Jeremiah 11.18-20; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark
O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of
your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both
perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have
grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our
THE journey through Galilee that Mark describes sounds a
fiercely lonely one for Jesus. It was about 30 miles, and took a
couple of days. Jesus was avoiding crowds, so that he could focus
on getting the disciples to understand his messiahship, which they
had so recently acclaimed, before Peter had tried to silence him on
It can be easier to talk about hard things when walking side by
side rather than sitting looking at each other, but the disciples
could not comprehend what Jesus said, and, sadly, were afraid to
ask. Sometimes, it is easier not to ask questions than risk hearing
answers that we fear.
Anyone who has felt unheard by someone to whom they looked for
support in distress will have an insight into how isolated Jesus
would feel. He needed his closest friends to listen, receive what
he had to say, and keep company with him. But, like Job's
comforters, they could not cope. There was no succour for him, only
an intensification of the loneliness.
Worse, not only were the disciples not listening to Jesus: they
were having side conversations, indeed arguments, to which he was
not privy, as they walked in twos and threes along the road. While
he spoke of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, in
ironic and terrible contrast, they were arguing about who was the
greatest. Perhaps they were trading experiences: "I was the first
to follow Jesus," "I healed a sick person when we went on mission,"
"Yes, but I saw Jesus transfigured."
So, once in the house where there was no escape, he challenged
them. He sat down, thereby increasing the gravitas of the moment,
as he assumed the position of a rabbi when teaching, and, having
failed to get them to understand his words, resorted to a visual
aid, and took a child, perhaps one of the disciples' children, and
placed him or her centre stage. In a culture where children were
insignificant, Jesus's action and teaching that he and, more
astonishingly, God came to the disciples through children was
On 14 August, the Church remembered Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish
priest killed in Auschwitz, after ten prisoners were chosen
randomly to die in revenge for what was wrongly thought to be an
escape. One man cried: "My wife, my children! I will never see them
again," and immediately Kolbe stepped forward to take his place,
saying: "I am a priest; he has a wife and children."
In the starvation cell, he celebrated mass daily, and, two weeks
later, when his companions had died, and the cell was needed for
more condemned prisoners, he was given a lethal injection.
The prisoner whom he had saved returned home at the end of the
war, and was reunited with his wife, but, tragically, his sons had
been killed. Every 14 August for five decades, he returned to
Auschwitz to honour Kolbe. He said that he felt remorse for
effectively signing Kolbe's death warrant, but came to realise that
a man like him could not have done otherwise, and, as a priest, he
wanted to help the men condemned to starve to death to maintain
I focused the prayers at evensong around his story, and
afterwards, a visitor reflected on Kolbe's continuing influence. He
exemplified James's exhortation to show by our good lives that our
works are done with gentleness born of wisdom, even when, like
Jeremiah, he was led as a gentle lamb to the slaughter.
Kolbe's instinctive reaction to value that prisoner's unknown
wife and children was the fruit of a lifetime of perceiving and
knowing what he ought to do. By embodying Jesus's teaching, he
publicly reversed the "values" of the Nazis. A memorial by the cell
bears continuing witness to his action.
The playwright Christopher Fry wrote: "No man is free who will
not dare to pursue the questions of his own loneliness. It is
through them that he lives."
Jesus and Kolbe had to go on alone, without the support of their
closest friends. In the collect, we predicate our prayer on the
assurance that God hears our prayer, including the prayer of our
loneliness, and will enable us to embody the wisdom from above in
our lives, so that we, like Kolbe, are full of good fruits.