This Sunday’s readings are about trusting in God. The real proof of our faith is whether we believe God is active and will preserve us. This is the real depth of humility: to trust in God, not in horses or princes.
In the Gospel, Jesus continues to teach the disciples about his coming death: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” “But they did not understand.” (Interesting: “they were afraid to question him” – because they did not trust in him to care for them.)
What part did they not understand? Perhaps they did not understand the opposition, why anyone would want to kill Jesus. But gosh, there’s been plenty of opposition in the Gospel. That men are violent and unjust is not hard to understand.
What they did not understand was the rising part. In fact, they did not understand the dying part because they did not understand the rising part.
So often our trust in God is thin. We believe he will protect us through human means. We trust in God to the extent that we hope he’ll make everything be fine. But in the Cross, Jesus calls them to trust even when things are not fine. God wants to take us to where there is nothing left but trust in him.
In the second half of our Gospel reading, we see the practical circumstances. The disciples are arguing about who is, already, the greatest among them. Jesus tells them, to be great, become little.
Because the only true greatness is the greatness that is given by God alone. Divine greatness comes from so trusting in God that we do not try to become great by human means.
From this comes, again, love of the poor. Here it is in the form of a child: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.” But the point is, children are not the way to greatness. We’re looking for the way to become important. Jesus says the only way is to focus on the things that don’t make you important – and trusting in God, God alone, to raise you to glory. To find glory, do not seek it – except in God alone.
On one level, Jesus says that he is in the child: whoever receives the child receives him. But in another way, he is in the renunciation. By focusing on the child – on the person who can give you no glory; not advance your career; not make you popular – you assert, with your deeds, that you trust in God alone, seek your glory in God alone.
That’s one reason the poor and the little ones matter: because they are a way of renouncing the quest for human glory. Do you really believe God will give you glory? Or do you seek it in human achievement?
Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Wisdom, talks about this dynamic in terms of the Law. To follow God’s law is here above all a renunciation of human glory.
The wicked fear the law will get in the way of their worldly success.
But the constant refrain of the just is that “God will defend him and deliver him,” “God will take care of him.”
And so he is gentle and patient. He does not need to fight – he renounces the fight – because he trusts in God.
And in our continued tour through the Letter of James, we get one of his central, defining passages.
On the one side is the way of war. “You covet but do not possess.” We have desires and we hope to fulfill them – by taking, and fighting, and scratching to the top. “You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.” It doesn’t work. The way of the world seems “practical” – but it doesn’t get us where we want to go.
And, perhaps, this mentality affects us, too. Unlike our Old Testament reading, James isn’t talking “us” vs. “them.” Here it’s his own audience, his own congregation, whom he accuses of war. He underlines this by saying, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly.” These are people who pray – but whose heart is not set on God.
He contrast them with “the wisdom from above,” which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy.” The way of peace – he repeats that most beautiful word three times.
But the way of peace is “first of all pure” – because it sets its heart not in this world, and this world’s means of grasping after worldly success.
Where is God calling you to trust more deeply in him alone?