Followers of God have the responsibility to be unique people. That belief motivates each of Sunday’s three readings. One can’t follow God without standing in contrast to those who don’t follow God.

The Wisdom writer shows the different between the just and the unjust by putting a condemnation of the former in the mouth of the latter: "They are obnoxious to us; they set themselves against our doing, reproach us for transgressions of the law and charge us with violations of our training" (Wis 2: 12, 17-20).

What are the distinct virtues of the just — those who form relationships with God and others? The unjust tell us, "Let us put the just ones to the test that we might have proof of their gentleness and try their patience. Let us condemn them to a shameful death; for according to their own words, God will take care of them." Trust in God’s loving care permits some people to behave in a counter-culture way, to be gentle and patient in trying situations.

War within

Yet before we conclude that our sacred authors spend all their time comparing believers to unbelievers, we should listen to the other readings. Both deal with Christians, not pagans; both uncover behavior among those who believe they’re following God that contradicts such a claim.

"Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?" James asks (James 3: 16-4:3). "Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet, but do not possess. You kill and envy, but you cannot obtain. You fight and wage war." James begins this section of his letter by naming the source of these "passions." "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist," he writes, "there is disorder and every foul practice."

Even God’s true disciples must deal with jealousy and selfish ambition. That’s why Mark decides to embed that topic within the misunderstanding that springs from Jesus’ second prediction of His passion, death and resurrection (Mk 9: 30-37). "What were you arguing about on the way?" Jesus asks His disciples. "They remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves who was the greatest."

Mark believes nothing more severely tears apart a Christian community and distracts it from carrying on the ministry of Jesus than creating a hierarchical ranking within it. So he has Jesus remind His followers, "If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be the last of all and servant of all."

And to demonstrate what He just said, He takes the most insignificant person in the community, a child, "and places it in their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said to them, ‘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."

De-ranked

Our early Christian writers believed the just will never revolve their communities around rank or give in to the temptation to compete with others. That’s why Scripture scholars warn us that there’s no clearer departure in our churches from Jesus’ original teaching and ministry than in their field.

For some reason (probably James’ "passions"), we feel we’ve received a dispensation from this "no ranking" rule when the ranking is part of Church structure or practice. Given our Scriptural roots, it’s impossible to defend competitive sports and study programs in our Christian schools and organizations, or the "honors track" we’ve created for our leaders.

Because we can so easily condemn the behavior of those outside the faith, Mark and James point out the many within the faith who aren’t following God as God wishes to be followed. Both are convinced that only after we get our own Christian act together will non-Christians have an example for getting their act together.

(9/18/03)