There are two parts to our Gospel reading this Sunday. The first part is another prediction by Jesus of his passion and death. The disciples do not understand what he is saying and so simply ignore him. This leads to the second half of the Gospel reading in which we find the disciples squabbling among themselves as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus stops them and gives them the example of little children for them to emulate.
We begin by looking at the first part and the first thing that we notice is that this is the middle one of three separate predictions by Jesus of his passion as recorded in St Mark’s Gospel. It is interesting that in all three of these predictions Jesus speaks only to the disciples and not to the generality of the people. In all three of them we note that Jesus and the disciples are travelling from one place to another and, besides it giving them a good opportunity to be alone, it reflects the interior or spiritual journey that the disciples are on.
The disciples consistently misunderstand or ignore Jesus being preoccupied as they are with their own concerns. In the first Peter remonstrates with him. Here in the second the disciples start arguing about which of them is the more important. And in the third James and John sidle up to Jesus asking for privileged places in the Kingdom. Clearly none of these important prophesies have much impact on them.
In this, the second prediction, as they travel along the road we see how Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen to him. He waits till they get to Capernaum and then asks them what they were arguing about on the way. It seems as though Jesus has been exercising a great deal of patience with them. After hearing his words about what is going to happen the proper response of the disciples ought to have been a bit of self-examination. They should have been asking themselves how they would cope with Christ’s passion and preparing themselves for the consequences. Instead they argue and jostle for the position of top dog.
At the very least the disciples should have questioned Jesus further and asked him to clarify what he meant by this ominous prophesy. Instead they act, as sometimes we do ourselves, like an ostrich burying their heads in the sand, afraid to face up to something that would prove to be rather terrifying.
What the disciples end up doing is arguing about their rank and position. They show themselves to be highly competitive among themselves, each one wanting to push themselves forward. In this they show that they have plenty of ambition.
Ambition is not always a bad thing. It can be very good; it can be a driving force in a person’s life and can help us to achieve their goals and it can help us to use our abilities to the full. We also want our children to show some ambition; we want them to get good grades at school, a good university degree, and to establish themselves in a worthwhile profession. This is good, as long as it takes into account the true abilities of our sons and daughters and that it is in accordance with their wishes.
And an individual can be ambitions on their own behalf and can strive very hard to achieve a specific goal. Often people will put off short term pleasures in order to achieve what they perceive to be a greater good. We call this deferred gratification and it is one of the important lessons we ought to learn as we go through life.
However, there is a negative side to ambition. Unrestrained ambition can take over our whole lives, it can become an end in itself. We can find that we have become competitive in every single area. This competitive impulse can take us over completely and end up spoiling our relationships and so destroying our lives. Ambition is good if kept in check, but bad if we let it get out of control.
Our second reading today has been well chosen to fit in with the theme of the Gospel. St James warns his people that jealousy and ambition can play havoc with the Christian community. He says that ambition sows dissent and anger within the congregation.
He tells them that the best antidote to unrestrained ambition is prayer, because in prayer we see things in their true light. According to James if we want inappropriate things and then we begin to pray we will see them for what they are and come to the realisation that these things may not be in our best interests. We then begin to pray for the things that we really need such as a spirit of humility and peacefulness.
On arriving in Capernaum Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about, although he surely knew quite well what they were discussing. He puts his arm around the little children and invites the disciples to take them as an example. Little children are essentially vulnerable and innocent and it is these qualities that Jesus prizes. He does not want his disciples to be ambitious for the wrong things, he would rather that they adopt the characteristics of a child and be without guile or competitiveness.
Jesus tells the disciples that he is himself essentially like a little child. He is trusting; he takes pleasure in small things; he enjoys being good; he is without ambition. Jesus invites the disciples to accept the fact that in the Kingdom of God it is these attitudes that are valued above all others.
His disciples will ultimately become the leaders of the Church. They will have to model themselves on Christ and they will have to teach the people by word and example just what the Christian life really means. They will have to leave aside worldly ambition; leave aside any kind of aggression or animosity towards others; leave aside jealousy and envy; and leave aside the values of this world.
Their task will be to adopt the values of the Kingdom of God and to embrace attitudes of humility, respect, vulnerability, prayerfulness, truthfulness, love and hope. For it is in these things that the Kingdom of God consists. They are invited by Jesus to understand that little children know these things far better than so-called mature adult men. They disciples have much to learn but perhaps more to unlearn. The same goes for ourselves.
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Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket