The 25th Sunday of the Year introduces us to the Book of Wisdom, an extended meditation on the wonder of a divine wisdom that inhabits the souls of the just. Such wisdom is sharply contrasted with the selfish and vindictive attitudes that have become the wisdom of a sinful world.
“Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breaches of the law and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing.” Ancient though these words are, they describe the inevitable conflict in every generation as the honesty of virtue confronts the arrogance of a self-indulgent world. In a sinful world, a life of virtue cannot be simply ignored: it must be either embraced or violently rejected. Such is the dynamism of sin, perfectly expressed in the Book of Wisdom. “Let us test the virtuous man with cruelty and torture, and thus explore this gentleness of his and put his endurance to the proof. Let us condemn him to a shameful death since he will be looked after: we have his word for this.”
If we live out the values of the Gospel, living lives firmly rooted in the love of God and neighbour, it is inevitable that some will perceive such lives as both a condemnation and threat. Such tension is all too evident in contemporary debates concerning the sanctity of life, the nature of marriage and family life. According to the Book of Wisdom, such conflict must always be expected, since “their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God”.
The Gospel leads us into St Mark’s second prediction of Christ’s approaching Passion: “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death, and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.”
The violence of the Passion, while perpetrated by the few, was the vindictive resentment of a sinful world confronted with incarnate Wisdom and selfless integrity. Jesus was preparing his disciples not only for his own Passion, but also for the cross that would be the price of their own witness.
Mark’s Gospel skilfully uncovers our reluctance to embrace the Cross of Christ. It was as if the disciples had not heard the words of Jesus, words that were immediately followed by a trivial expression of the selfishness that so easily undermines our thinking. “What were you arguing about on the road? They said nothing because they had been arguing which of them was the greatest.”
Jealousy and vain competition are sure signs of a soul that has not yet secured itself in the presence of God. Jesus responded with words so easily accepted in theory, but so difficult to practise: “If anyone wants to be the first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”
The Book of Wisdom described the conflict between virtue and a sinful world. Jesus saw that conflict as a process of inner purification, the surrender of clinging selfishness to selfless love. By embracing a child, Jesus rejected all pretension to grandeur. “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me.”
True humility does not come easily, and it will always involve the Cross.