Rarely do we hear two Gospel passages that meld better than last week's (Mark 8:27-35) and this week's (Mark 9:30-37).

Last week, we had the first of Mark's three stories on dying with Jesus. This Sunday, we get the second. Like the other two, it begins with Jesus predicting His passion, death and resurrection; followed by His disciples' "misunderstanding"; and ending with Jesus' "clarification."

This week's misunderstanding isn't directly described. Jesus only refers to it when He asks His followers, "'What were you arguing about on the way?' They remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest."

Mark's pattern

When we couple their "greatest" argument with James and John's request for the "glory seats" in Mark's final story in chapter 10, we surface a pattern even casual Gospel readers recognize: Jesus wants us to die with Him by eradicating all "stratification" in the Christian community.

Since no Catholic alive today has known anything but such divisions, Jesus' dream seems impossible to achieve within the context of our hierarchical Church.

But before we bail out, let's start to fulfill Jesus' dream where He began: "He sat down, called the Twelve and said to them, 'Those who wish to be first must be the last of all and the servants of all.'"

He then presents them with a practical example of such dying service. "Taking a child, He placed it in their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said, '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.'"

We often confuse this particular "Jesus and the child" reading with the one in which He insists we must become like a little child in order to step across the line into God's kingdom. Here, He presents us with a more difficult task: We must accept children as we accept Him. Or, to be more blunt, when we die enough to accept children in our midst, we're accepting Him.

Students of Scripture believe Jesus used a child to demonstrate Christian equality because children are the easiest to exclude from the community. They are the ones who, by nature, give us reason to exclude them. They create "distractions" in our gatherings. Being open and accepting of such a disruptive, non-contributing element in society certainly sets us apart from others.

Being just

That's why it's also important to appreciate Sunday's two other readings. In the first (Wisdom 2:12,17-20), the "just one" who provokes a violent reaction from his or her peers is, like the Christian, someone who relates to others in a unique way.

Among other things, the just ones demonstrate they are children of God by their gentleness and patience. Like Jesus, they have a unique concept of community.

In the same way, in the second reading (James 3:16-4:3), James reminds us that "the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace." And then he asks a question all Christians should ask: "Where do wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?"

Some years ago, America magazine did a pro/con piece on eliminating church cry rooms in favor of integrating small children into liturgical celebrations. The priest who did the "con" argument stressed that he frequently worked long and hard on his homily only to have the disruption of children destroy its continuity and diminish its effect.

He might have overlooked something Jesus wanted us to think about during the Eucharist. Our homilies are far less important than the make-up of the communities we address. But it takes a death to understand that.

(9/21/06)