Sunday, September 20, 2009

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Receiving the Hands of the Child

Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
Picture: cc po1yester

Sisters and brothers, have you ever visited a pre-school? Or maybe watched pre-school children at play? Today I’d like to invite us to imagine the scene at a pre-school, where a child is at play. What is the child playing? Two games that we probably know well. The first has to do with fitting blocks of different shapes into their respective slots in a box. The blocks will only fit into the slots if they are of the same shape. The child has to match them. Can you picture it? The second game has to do with making shapes out of play-doh or modeling clay. The child is free to make whatever shape it likes because the clay yields to its touch. The clay submits to the hands of the child. The child is limited only by its own imagination. Can you picture the scene? Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? But then this child does something different, something creative. It decides to combine the two games. It shapes the play-doh from the second game so that it fits into one of the slots in the first. Can you imagine what the scene looks like? Do you think the child will succeed?

It may seem surprising, sisters and brothers, but perhaps this scene of a child at play can help us to appreciate the deeper meaning in our scripture readings today. Like our pre-school scene, our readings today also present us with slots and blocks and modeling clay. Can you find them? Can you see what they look like?

First, let’s look for the slots. The first reading gives us the names and descriptions of two different kinds of people, two slots of different shapes. The first has the shape of the wicked. The second that of the just. And these two differently shaped slots, these two different kinds of people, are contrasted in terms of what they do and what motivates them. In the first reading, the wicked are threatened and offended by the words and way of life of the just. So upset are they that they even go to the extent of plotting to mistreat and to murder the just. With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test, they say. Let us condemn him to a shameful death. Conflict and cruelty, hostility and homicide: these are what characterize the conduct of the wicked. And the second reading tells us something of what motivates such horrible behavior. Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is every disorder and every foul practice. Jealousy and selfish ambition, leading to conflict, violence and even death: such is the shape of the wicked.

Contrast that with the shape of the just. Whereas the wicked act defensively, out of anxious self-assertion, the just rely ultimately on God to defend them. As we heard in our responsorial psalm: Behold, God is my helper; the Lord sustains my life. The just are able to do this because they are moved by the very thing we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer when we said that the perfection of justice is to be found in God’s love. The just are moved by the love of God. Such that whereas the foolish actions of the wicked lead to disorder and violence, the just act according to the wisdom from above, which is pure… peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits and is sown and cultivated in peace. Whereas the selfish ambition of the wicked leads ultimately to the taking of innocent life, the love of the just allows them to lay down their life for others.

These then are the two different slots in our readings, the wicked and the just. And, in the gospel, we find two blocks that match them. Jesus is, of course, the Just One, moved by the Wisdom and Love of God to lay down his life for others, both friends and enemies alike. In his life we find the block that fits into the slot of the just. In contrast, in their jealousy and hardness of heart, the religious authorities who plot to have Jesus condemned and crucified fit the slot of the wicked.

And don’t we find these same slots and blocks in our own experience today? Don’t we find them in our world, in our communities, in our families, perhaps even in our own hearts? In our parish communities, for example, do we not find, on the one hand, people who serve selflessly in different ministries, people who help in proclaiming the word of God, in leading the singing, in preparing the coffee and donuts, or in putting out the chairs? But, on the other hand, in some parishes, perhaps not in this one, we may also find jealousy and selfish ambition at work, such that various ministries come to be monopolized by the same people, to the exclusion of others. Where else in your experience, sisters and brothers, do you encounter the slots of the wicked and the just?

But that’s not all. More than just slots and blocks, in our readings today, we also find something that looks like a child working with play-doh. Isn’t this what Jesus is doing with the disciples in the gospel? We are told that as they began a journey through Galilee, Jesus was teaching his disciples. In telling them about his impending Passion and Death, Jesus was trying to make them understand that the Cross is central to the path they have chosen, the path of love that leads to life. He was trying to shape them to fit into the slot of the just. But the teaching is too much for the disciples. They demonstrate their lack of understanding by arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. They show that their shape still tends to fit more easily into the slot of the wicked than the slot of just. But all is not lost. For we are also told that the disciples remain silent when questioned by Jesus. They are embarrassed, a sign that perhaps there is still hope for them. In the days ahead, they might yet be molded into the right shape by Jesus, if not before his Crucifixion, then perhaps after his Resurrection. But for this to happen, they must remain pliable as play-doh. In contrast to the hardness of Jesus’ enemies, the disciples need to learn to submit to the healing hands of the Lord. Will they succeed?

And what about us? Does the Lord not continue to mold us too, shaping us to fit the slot of the just? And does not this molding often bear the shape of the Cross? Think, for example, of the parent who loses a child to cancer. How will s/he respond to such a tragic experience? Some might end up hardening themselves, remaining trapped in their grief and their anger at God and the world. But then, there may also be others who gradually allow their pain to lead them to reach out to others who have experienced a similar loss, or who contribute towards the work of finding a cure for this dreaded disease. Remaining pliable, these parents submit themselves to the hands of the Lord, as he shapes them to fit into the slot of the just. They learn to lay down their lives for others. They learn the deeper meaning of Jesus' words to the disciples in the gospel: Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me?

Sisters and brothers, in various ways, like the pre-schooler and the play-doh, Jesus wants to shape us to better fit the slot of the just. How receptive are we to his touch? Will this child succeed?