The late Fr Benedict Groeschel used to point out regularly that the world usually mocks holiness. In our first reading this Sunday taken from the Book of Wisdom we hear a good example of what Fr Groeschel meant. The sacred author puts on the lips of the wicked, those who act contrary to God, harsh words against the “just one.” The wicked find the just, or righteous, man “obnoxious” because “he sets himself against” their wicked actions and “reproaches” them for their wickedness (Wis 2:12). This comes in the first verse of our first reading after which we skip 5 verses from the second chapter of Wisdom, jumping from verse 12 to verse 17. Those five verses carry on in the same manner as verse 12, reciting all the ways the wicked people find the just man, the righteous man, obnoxious to them. In verse 15, for example, it is noted that the life of the righteous man “is not like that of others,” noting that “different are his ways” (Wis 2:15). As a saying typically attributed to Flannery O’Connor goes, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”
Despite being obnoxious, the righteous man has clearly pricked the conscience of the wicked, which is why the wicked, in order to determine whether or not the righteous “one is the son of God” (Wis 2:18), or truly righteous, proposes to persecute him “with violence and torture,” even going so far as to “condemn him to a shameful death” (Wis 2:20). The wicked put the righteous one to the test in order to see if in the face of violence, torture, and even death he will remain steadfast in “gentleness” and “patience” (Wis 2:19). You see, the righteous person does not threaten the wicked by vehemently denouncing their wickedness, but by confidently living the truth, contra mundi (against the world), that is, peacefully and gently, for all to see. This is how Christians bear witness to what is beautiful. What is truly beautiful is so because it is also true and good. It is by living for God that we reproach wickedness. To reproach is to express disapproval or disappointment
We read and interpret Scripture too glibly if we jump from our first reading immediately to the life and witness of our Lord Jesus Christ, even though, clearly, these words are fully realized in His passion, and death. The corollary to this in our own time ought to be obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. If we are truly living for God, which means rejecting political ideologies whether of the right or the left, we run the risk of being seen as somewhat politically incoherent because our politics, as such, do not derive from the platforms of political parties, but from the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in Sacred Scripture and Tradition as set forth by the magisterium of the Church.
Hence, when it comes to matters of life and death- whether confronting the evils of abortion or physician-assisted suicide, which, time and again, has proven only to lead to euthanasia, or the myriad of other ways society disregards and seeks to simply dispose of vulnerable human beings that a truly just society would protect and not kill- we must take a stand. We must be willing to be courageous when it comes to conscientiously bearing witness to the truth about the nature and purpose of marriage, which, for a Catholic, cannot be reduced to a matter of personal opinion, as well as the growing confusion about sexuality that is the result of a cultural mindset that sees this life as all there is. We also must be peacemakers, especially when it seems we have become so callously bellicose, one result of which is the current flood of refugees into Europe from the Middle East, a region destroyed by wars waged by Western powers. Neither can we remain neutral about the growing economic inequality in which more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Our second reading from the Letter of St James sets forth the roots of wickedness, not just in the world, but even among ourselves, the followers of Christ. “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice” (Jas 3:16), James tells us. Last week we heard the Lord Himself lay down the conditions of discipleship, of following Him: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). If you wish to save your life you must lose it for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel.
Jesus reiterates His call to selfless service in our Gospel today when, after the twelve tell Him what they had been arguing about on their way back to Capernaum, which was their home-base. What they had been arguing about was which of them, besides Jesus, was the greatest among them. By the mere fact they were having this argument it is clear that they didn’t yet understand who Jesus is. Clearly some, if not all, of the twelve were holding onto a mistaken idea of the Messiah, even after Jesus’ stern rebuke of St Peter in last week’s Gospel. In other words, what they expected was waiting for them in Jerusalem, to which they would start making their way after this stopover in Capernaum, were thrones and not the Cross.
The Cross is a difficult message, it is not the message of the purveyors of the false Gospel, propounded by people like Joel Osteen, which is so popular in our day that bids us follow Jesus and all will be well in this world, we will be healthy and wealthy. This is why it bears repeating what Jesus repeated to those who, after His resurrection, He would send as apostles to preach the Gospel and to build up His Church. We know He repeated it because in our Gospel today we hear that Jesus, after first telling them what was to happen to Him while on the road to Caesarea-Philippi, “was teaching his disciples and telling them, 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” (Mark 9:31). Often it seems that this is no big deal to us because we live on the other side of the resurrection, but it should be a big deal to us in light of Jesus telling us, as His followers, to take up our cross and sacrifice ourselves for Him.
Just as in the early centuries of the Church, today the martyrs show us what Jesus meant by taking up the cross, by losing our lives in order to save them, which is the central paradox of our Christian faith. This paradox is only resolved by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Therefore, our take away for today comes from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God (Heb 12:1-2)Jesus beckons us to where He is, but the only way there is through the Cross.