An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012
THE PERCEPTION THAT capitalism—an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, private decision, and competition on a free market—is not necessarily the best economic system in the world is not new. Karl Marx has shown as its ugly head, and even presented an alternative system distinguished for its emphasis on state control and elimination of private property. But the more than 70-year experiment of Russian Leninism and Stalinism proved that heaven is nowhere nearer under a Communist regime, and therefore that one cannot take the alternative economic theory hook, line and sinker, for all its avowed promises. It was for this reason that Gorbachev advocated perestroika, the restructuring of the system. For one thing, the Russians after all had a desire similar to the capitalists’: a better life, and integrity in life. On the other hand, a shift to some form of capitalism would cost the people much. But if such a life is to be attained, some things have to be given up, however central they are to the political belief, such as too much government control, and too much state ownership.
We, Christians, also speak of a better life. In the 2nd Reading (Jas 3:16-4:3), James refers to it as the Christian way of life that all of us must aspire for. That life is not simply characterized by freedom from hunger and want, political equality and participation. It is rather known for the relationship that obtains among the community members—peaceableness, leniency, docility, richness in sympathy, kindly deeds, impartiality, sincerity, and justice (Jas 3:17). Without them, a Christian community cannot live in peace. There may be plenty of food, wine, clothing and fine things, but they would not live in harmony, because human passion, which gives rise to covetousness and jealousy, would prevail. Hence, it may be said that such a life is one that is lived according to the wisdom of God.
How is such a life attainted? Like the Russians of Gorbachev, Christians must undergo a kind of perestroika, a form of value reorientation. In fact, it calls for a reversal of values. In our life that is secularized, there are so many values that have to be reversed, but our Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) focuses on one value: the value of greatness. In our largely secular world, what is greatness? Who is the greatest? It is commonly held that greatness is measured in terms of success. A person is considered great if he has made it in business or in politics, if he has accumulated vast wealth and power, if he has landed on the front pages of Time or Newsweek. Having succeeded in life, they have even become untouchable. And people regard them as respectable, no matter the way they acquired their wealth and power. Thus, greatness is oriented toward what a person has: wealth, honor and fame.
But the Gospel holds a different view of greatness. In the story about the discussion among the disciples on who was the greatest, the most important, among them, Jesus, who overheard them, declared: “If anyone wishes to rank first, he must remain the last one of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Such a view implies, of course, that the disciples must reverse the commonly accepted values and, consequently, alter their thinking, behavior, and the way they perceive the world and other people. The greatest person, far from being one who has amassed power and wealth, is one who has offered his life for the service of the community, who has looked after the needs of its members. This explains why Jesus rejected the pagan values of power and domination. Though they may be held in high esteem among pagans, they have definitely no place in the Christian community: “You know how among the Gentiles those who seem to exercise authority lord it over them; their great ones make their importance felt. It cannot be like that among you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever want to rank first must serve the needs of all” (Mark 10:42b-43).
To illustrate what it means to be servant of the community, Jesus pointed to a little child (Mark 9:37). Since in the Jewish society at the time of Jesus, a child was a symbol of the person who had no rights at all, whose importance was not recognized, to accept a child is to accept anyone in the community, however lowly, make oneself available to him, suffer even for the scum of the earth, and recognize oneself as no better than the marginal in the community. Having this attitude, we no longer aspire for greatness in terms of power, wealth, fame or importance. Indeed, what makes it difficult for us to realize an authentic Christian life is our aspiration for these secular values. They inflame our passion, and, as James observes, “where do the conflicts and disputes among you originate? Is it not your inner cravings that make war within your members? What you desire you do not obtain, and so you resort to murder. You envy and you cannot acquire, so you quarrel and fight” (Jas 4:1-2b).
But once we reverse our value system, and once we begin to see that greatness lies in service to the community, then we will no longer crave for these secular values, and real peace in the community will be secured. Of course, like the Russian perestroika that was not wholly acceptable to many soviets, a Christian reversal in thinking and acting would entail much pain, and would even be unpalatable to many, for it would unsettle them from their comfort and privilege. But then, we have to undergo this process if we wish to achieve the real Christian way of life, even as Jesus had to be delivered into the hands of men and put to death in order to achieve the glory of the resurrection (Mark 9:31).