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17th Sunday after Trinity

20 September 2018

Proper 20: Wisdom 1.16—2.1, 12–22; Psalm 54; James 3.13—4.3, 7–8a; Mark 9.30–37


THE two choices posed in our epistle — between the wisdom which is “from above” and the “devilish” logic of a self-centred life — are also the choices at the heart of our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon.

As Richard Clifford explains, the book seeks to demonstrate the reality of divine sovereignty in a world where evil and injustice often seem to have the upper hand: “Divine rule has been hidden in that it has not yet appeared in its fullness. There are now, therefore, ‘two worlds’. . . One world is all too familiar, for its law is that might makes right and that those faithful to God are at risk from violent and selfish people. It is ruled over by the kings of this world. Though the other world has not appeared fully, it is destined to last; it is eternal, for it is ruled by God. Each world has its adherents, its citizens” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Wisdom).

It is not surprising, the writer suggests, that there is hostility between citizens of the two kingdoms. What this passage has to say about the violent contempt of the “ungodly” towards the “righteous man” (whose very existence is a “reproof”) looks forward to the fate of Jesus at the hands of sinful humanity.

In our Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be “betrayed [paradidotai] into human hands”. As Mary Healy observes, this Greek verb “was a key word in the Early Church’s understanding of the Passion”. It evokes the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (the same verb is used in the Septuagint translation). Its use here suggests that “Jesus was not a helpless victim of forces beyond his control; he handed himself over in loving obedience to the Father’s plan” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark).

This world’s kingdoms find the sacrifice of the “righteous man” incomprehensible. They can understand only his self-offering as defeat. But, according to our first reading, such an understanding fails to rise above a worldly, graceless view of the matter: those who planned to torture and kill the righteous man were “led astray in their reasoning” because they “did not know the secret purposes of God”.

The disciples in this week’s passage are no more comprehending than was St Peter in last week’s: “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” It is the state of the disciples’ hearts, rather than the dullness of their intellect, which makes them unable to comprehend the logic of the Passion.

This is made clear in the second half of our Gospel reading, when Jesus finds them arguing about which one is the greatest. Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first “must be servant of all”, before taking a child in his arms. As Healy explains, he is “continuing to overturn their worldview and system of values”. But their hearts remain wayward, and their understanding limited, until they have seen their Lord crucified and risen, and received the Spirit at Pentecost.

In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts”. All of our readings identify wisdom and understanding as a state of heart as well as mind. St James writes that the wisdom “from above” is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”. This is contrasted with an “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” attitude, which takes the pursuit of immediate desires for status, pleasure, and resources to be the lifegiving way.

James seems to be addressing a particular situation of disharmony within his readers’ churches. He tells them that its cause is wayward desires: “You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” His diagnosis is as relevant to the dissatisfactions of our own society: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Humans have a deep-seated belief that the gratification of immediate desire will lead to true fulfilment — even though this belief is constantly being refuted by experience. Our hearts will not be satisfied until they are set on the things that are of true and lasting value. Our readings call us away from the false promise of this world’s kingdoms to the peace and joy of the Kingdom for which God made us.

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