Once we accept our four evangelists as theologians and not biographers, we can begin to appreciate how their original communities understood the Gospels. Jesus biographers are engaged in accurately passing on what the historical Jesus said and did; Gospel theologians, on the other hand, are concerned with exploring the implications of what the risen Jesus is saying and doing in the communities for which they're writing. For the faithful, grasping meaning is more important than just knowing facts.

In the case of Jesus predicting His passion, death and resurrection, Mark seems to alter some of the facts for his community in order to teach them what it means to die with Jesus (Mk 9:30-37). He has Jesus predict these three events three times. (You can find the predictions within a line or two of verse 30 in chapters 8, 9 and 10.) Mark methodically constructs each passage in the same pattern: first the prediction; then someone says or does something showing they misunderstand the importance of dying; finally, Jesus clarifies the meaning of Christian dying.

Don't comprehend

In the chapter 8 prediction, Peter was the "misunderstander" later, in chapter 10, it will be James and John. On Sunday, it's the Twelve, Jesus' closest followers, who by "arguing (on the road) about who was the most important," show they have no idea about what it means to die with Him.

Jesus tries to correct their unchristian leadership ethic by first reminding them, "Anyone who wishes to rank first must remain last of all and servant of all." Then, graphically illustrating the point, He takes an unimportant child, "stood him in their midst, and putting His arms around him, says, `Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.'"

Though Jesus leads us to life, His path winds through a series of everyday, faith-inspired deaths. Only those willing to endure such dying will ever reach the life they seek. Back in chapter 8, Peter's misunderstanding prompted Jesus to point out that our first step into death comes from moving forward and totally giving ourselves to God. On Sunday, thanks to the Twelve's misunderstanding, He encourages us to take one step further: to die by recognizing the importance of everyone in the community, especially those who, like children, can never repay us for our acts of service.

Jesus believes the most significant person in God's reign is the person who serves others, someone willing to die to himself or herself so the least in the community might recognize their own importance.

Mark obviously aimed Jesus' sayings at those in his church lusting after honor and power, those letting ambition sidetrack their quest for life. Mark's Jesus constantly proclaims the central message of faith: Life comes only to those who give their lives for others.

Life forever

This same quest for life eventually led the author of Wisdom to understand life to be something which goes beyond our earthly experience (Wis 2:12, 17-20). The first biblical writer to believe in the possibility of an eternity with Yahweh encourages his readers to expand their view of how those who have formed and maintained a relationship with God will be rewarded. Though these just might be "condemned to a shameful death," God will certainly "take care" of them -- forever.

But, as Jesus faithfully taught, and James faithfully reflected on, we best demonstrate our relationship with God by working on our relationships with others (Jas 3:16-4:3). James doesn't permit us to make the mistake of idealizing his community. From Sunday's second reading, we see it mirroring some of our own local parishes, teeming with "jealousy and strife,...inconstancy and all kinds of vile behavior." Yet, the writer doesn't just stop with a surface appraisal of the situation. He has the courage to ask, "Where do the conflicts and disputes among you originate?"

The answer comes quickly. "Is it not your inner cravings that make war within your members?" In other words, by concentrating only on our own desires and not recognizing the importance and needs of others, we replace God's peace with a state of community war.

Perhaps we modern Christians still haven't listened carefully enough to Jesus' explanation of Christian death.

(09-18-97)