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16th Sunday after Trinity

09 September 2021

19 September, Proper 20: Wisdom of Solomon 1.16-2.1,12-22 or Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4.3,7-8a; Mark 9.30-37


ALL the readings except the Gospel reflect on being made to suffer by enemies. In Wisdom and Jeremiah (whichever is chosen), the theme is the unrighteous and their hatred for the righteous. In the psalm, a specific historical event is flagged up in the title: David hiding from Saul (1 Samuel 23). This is not comfortable reading for Christians who eschew judgement as indistinguishable from judgementalism.

The readings pit righteous against unrighteous, one group against another, but James offers a solution that is still helpful for those Christians who make a place for the psalms in their daily prayers. For James, the fight is against enemies, but enemies that are internal, such as manifold temptations: the “cravings that are at war within you” (4.1).

Not for the first time, I wonder why a lection has been filleted. In James’s case, the omission (4.4-6, 8b) cuts the exclamation, “Adulterers!” (too old-fashioned?). James goes on to condemn forms of sin which have no direct connection with adultery. It looks like the accusation is really a general form of abuse, like “Bastard!”, which has lost almost all its vituperative specificity in modern English invective.

More problematic than calling his reader an adulterer is James’s reference to God as jealous. This is undoubtedly awkward for us, attuned as we are to jealousy as a sin (akin to coveting), or a form of coercive control. But the price of the omission is too high if we lose James’s reference to God’s opposing the proud but giving grace to the humble.

The Gospel, in contrast, reflects on a human instinct related to the theme of shame which was touched on last week: “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The disciples had been singled out by Jesus; trusted with a ministry of preaching and exorcism (Mark 3). Given this bond of trust between them, why were they afraid to ask Jesus what he meant? We cannot be sure, but every possibility that we explore points to human beings’ dreading being exposed for stupidity or ignorance.

Years ago, I spent a month learning German at a Goethe-Institut in Bavaria. My teacher was very talented, but I remember her frustration with a group of “japanische Mädchen” (Japanese girls) who would not speak out when they did not understand. To admit incomprehension, in their mind, seemed to amount to a criticism of the teacher. So they smiled a lot, and said they were fine.

I have come across this reaction to ignorance or incomprehension many times as a teacher of Latin and Greek. The relationship with students, managed fruitfully, is one in which the student takes pleasure in learning, and has no fear of admitting puzzlement. The greatest pressure on this is the students’ perception of judgement by their peers. It is the job of a good teacher to banish fear right from the start, and encourage students to “catch” their own enthusiasm for the pleasure of attaining understanding. I use my own forgetfulness to encourage them. “You don’t know what this word means? What this verb form is? Nope, me neither. Let’s look it up.”

Switching from teacher to pastor, there is another truth of human nature in this Gospel. Jesus took the disciples aside to teach them the hardest truths about himself: that he was to suffer and die. They were not ready for this; they could make no sense of it. It’s not surprising. It would probably be like trying to explain the emotional cataclysms of puberty to a five-year-old.

The disciples knew enough, though, to be sure that they did not want to go where his words were taking them. They were not yet ready even to imagine his future suffering. Like children who fear the loss or death of a parent, they were able only to absorb the lesson, and be changed by the new reality that it brought, when they were dropped in at the deep end and given no choice.

As long as following Jesus is a mere lifestyle choice, we would-be disciples cannot really know the meaning of that step. But, once the balance tips and we find ourselves drawn, unable to resist, compelled to choose life in all its fullness (John 10.10), then we are truly ready to become what God would have us be.

Forthcoming Events

26 January 2022
Book launch: Entering the Twofold Mystery
Author Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley.

1 February 2022
Cathedrals and social justice
Book free tickets for this Church Times webinar with Mark Russell, Anne Richards and Adrian Dorber.

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