Pentecost 17, Year B

I. Theme –  Looking beyond self-centeredness toward "spirit-centered" relationships.

“Christ Blessing the Children” – Lucas Cranach the Younger (1540)

“ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” – Mark 9:36-37

The lectionary readings are here  or individually: 

Old Testament – Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm – Psalm 54 Page 659, BCP
Epistle – James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Gospel – Mark 9:30-37  

Today’s readings call us to humility, compassion and service. The author of Wisdom  gives voice to the ungodly, who experience the goodness of the righteous as an unwelcome reminder of their selfishness. James reminds us that humility and peaceableness show the wisdom of God. Today’s gospel reading from Mark contrasts the disciples’ battle over privilege with Jesus’ proclamation of his radical approach to the Kingdom of God and discipleship—placing ourselves at the disposal of the lowliest of the kingdom.

Brian Epperly writing in Patheos about this week, "Taken together, these passages are invitations to spirit-centered relationships. They challenge us to see beyond our own or our nation’s self-interest. They convict us of self-centeredness when we place profit over people or success over relationship. They urge industriousness that builds community and well-being that embraces an affirmation of women and men in their many and varied roles."

The Gospel is the second of three efforts to tell the disciples about his coming death and resurrection.  The disciples don’t understand, are angry and are concerned about their role in the kingdom and what will happen to them (somewhat like a company which looks like it will close). 

As Jesus probes the anger and denial of his disciples in today’s gospel, his question comes to us: What concerns are closest to our hearts? Do we, too, fret over status, authority or a lack of perks we think we deserve? Are we engaged in the disciples’ game of comparison?

We envy and can’t obtain, so we quarrel.  From our painful attempts at acquisition, we know the truth of this stark statement. Jesus’ finger points at us as well as at his companions. But by the same token, he offers us the same remedy. Into our midst, he plunks the same disheveled, impish and probably grubby child. And if we’re honest, we ask, “What does this kid have to do with theological discourse? Who invited her?”

Jesus invited her. And if Jesus invited her, then the child must have something to tell us. The child who has no bank account, no learned degrees, no office staff and no expertise has everything. In her total vulnerability, she is wrapped by the arms of Christ. She enjoys a peace for which the contentious disciples would crave.

"God, grant me heavenly wisdom which is pure, peaceable, gentle and willing to yield…"

II. Summary

Old Testament –   Jeremiah 11:18-20

Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry to Judah about 626 BCE and ended it about 580 BCE. His career thus spanned the period of turmoil that culminated in Judah’s final defeat by the Babylonians, the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple and the exile of most of the population.

Today’s reading introduces the first (11:18–12:6) of Jeremiah’s six -personal laments (15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-13, 20:14-18).  Last week we read from part of the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah; this week, it is the prophet Jeremiah who himself suffers and calls out to God.

Jeremiah reflects on the hatred directed toward him and puts his confidence in God’s plan. In spite of threats and persecution, suffering and sorrow, Jeremiah believes that God is sovereign over all the circumstances both of his life and of the life of the nation.

Jeremiah is committed to God and desires for his life to be a witness; therefore, he also calls God to show those that have wronged him that they have gone astray. We desire judgment against others who wronged us, but we must always remember that God desires justice. God’s justice is a restorative justice, not a retributive justice. The consequences of our actions may cause us harm, even death; but God’s desire is for us to turn away, to repent, and to seek God. God desires reconciliation, healing and wholeness, not death—but God does not prevent death and destruction from happening, and when our actions have severe consequences, we may suffer as a result of them. But God does not desire this.

Psalm – Psalm 54 Page 659, BCP

Psalm 54, a perseonal lament,  is a prayer for remembrance, that for those who remain faithful to God, God will remain faithful to them. Just like the prophet Jeremiah, we are reminded that in our suffering we can be a witness when we remain faithful to God, knowing that God did not cause our suffering.

Sometimes suffering is a consequence of our own actions; sometimes it is the result of other’s actions against us, but we can only control our own reaction, and if we remain faithful to God, we will know God’s deliverance.The psalmist prays earnestly for God’s intervention and salvation and ends his prayer with trust by thanking God for God’s faithfulness. 

Epistle –   James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Today’s reading contains parts of two sections—one on earthly versus heavenly wisdom (3:13-18) and the second on causes of strife and warfare (4:1-6). 

James first addresses the  problem of factions and cliques within the Christian community. These apparently formed  around those who claimed special wisdom (3:13), but such wisdom led to jealousy and  division.

Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, is characterized by peace within the community. The Wisdom of God  calls us to follow God’s ways, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to lay down our lives for one another, to welcome children and strangers and care for the poor and those in need. The Wisdom of God calls us to remember what God has done in history and in our lives, and that we are called to live out God’s love in the world. As James 4:4 reminds us, frendship with the world—in other words, getting cozy with the way of the world—is contrary to the Gospel.

The Gospel calls us to live in the world, but not be of the world. We are called to bring transformation to the world, light to the darkness. 

James sees the very process of prayer as a form of spiritual purification.  If we truly include God’s vision in our prayers, our sense of self will expand to include others. We may discover that our “wants” are not what we truly need to live a good life.   We may discover a greater desire: balancing an adequate income and enjoyment with planetary  well-being and a strong safety net.

James also preaches a gospel of congruence with God. We fight, gossip, and hurt one another  because our emphasis is on ourselves and our advancement and comfort to the exclusion of  others’ needs. The way of the world – not to be identified with our care for this Good  Earth – is egocentric, individualistic, competitive, zero sum (if you gain, I lose; my gain  is at your expense), dishonest, and consumerist. In fact, the way of the world destroys  ecosystems and denies economic justice. The way of God involves a commitment to community, the well-being of others, and placing our self-interest in the context of the greater good.

Gospel – Mark 9:30-37  

Jesus has  begun the long journey to Jerusalem.This is the second of three passion statements, predictions of his death and resurrection made by Jesus in the book of Mark. The first was in the region of Caeserea Philippi (8:31-32). This one is  in Capernaum. The last one–10:32-40–will be "on the way" to Jerusalem. Considering the  three statements in geographical sequence, they go from the north of Galilee, to Capernaum, to Jerusalem. He wants to avoid the crowds. 

This prediction of his Passion was in blunter, clearer terms than  the first prediction, which we heard last week, but as far as the disciples were concerned it was as though they had heard nothing. They had closed down in fear – they simply could not and would not understand. 

Since the prediction confuses the disciples, so Jesus  changes course . In this case, the stated reason for avoiding a public ministry is that Jesus’ focus is on teaching the disciples. He is teaching them, again, on the "way" of discipleship. Jesus response is directed specifically to "the twelve"–not simply the disciples, of whom  there were many more than twelve, but specifically to the inner circle, the leadership core:

The disciples proceed to argue about their relative status in the kingdom. The disciples have a heirarchical understanding of leadership. For them, and for most people, the leader is the "top dog," the "king of the hill," the "top banana," the General.  

On the contrary, the kingdom of God is not so much a place we go when we die, although it is that as well. The  kingdom of God is a way of life, something here and now. The kingdom of God is what our  world would be like if God were in charge. In anticipation of that day, it is how followers of Jesus are to live now "on the way" through life.  The kingdom of God is not organized heirarchically as the disciples think. In the community, true  leadership is exercised through being a "servant of all"

Jesus is not against "greatness" per se, but insists that greatness be understood in a radically different way.  Greatness is not power or  wealth, but found in service and care for the vulnerable. Greatness is a matter of  character, orientation, and breadth of interest. The great woman or man truly cares for others and embodies that care in her or his everyday life. No one is beyond her or his care.   For Jesus, an anonymous person serving in a soup kitchen is greater than Julius Caesar. 

The example of greatness in thie passage is serving children. In Jesus’ culture, children were not idealized. Children were cared for by women, who were also second-class citizens. Both were  regarded as property. (Infant mortality in the first century was quite high, perhaps as  much as 30%. Another 30% would die in childhood.) They had no rights, they had no voice. No-one would defer to them for anything of importance.

Yet Jesus teaches that in how we treat this person of no consequence will reveal whether or not we have welcomed him, whether or not we have encountered God. On the cross he will become a person despised and rejected. The way to recognizing God there will come through learning to recognizing him in the least important members of society.

Thus, receiving a child as though he or she were Jesus enjoins upon the Christian community openness to all the lowly and rejected, for in Hebrew practice, the envoy of someone was to be treated as that very person. 

III. Articles for this week in WorkingPreacher:

Old Testament –  Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm  –  Psalm 54

Epistle  –  James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Gospel  – Mark 9:30-37






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