Christians today tend to think of the age of martyrs in terms of the early centuries of the church, with vivid pictures of lions about to devour those who would not deny Christ. Yet Karl Rahner once noted that today we should speak not only of martyrs of the faith, but also of martyrs of justice. The readings today bring home that such martyrs are deeply rooted in the Bible.
The first reading provides the best example of the motif of the just person who suffers, yet is vindicated by God. The just person by his or her very life stands against those who have lost a sense of God and pursue only the good things that are real (Wis. 2:6) and make their strength the norm of justice (2:11).
The Gospel contains Jesus’ teaching on the way of discipleship as he makes his way toward his death. A dramatic characteristic of this section is that the chosen disciples consistently misunderstand his teaching, preferring to talk rather about questions of prestige and rank in the community (see esp. Mk. 10:32-45, the Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time).
In today’s Gospel, after witnessing the dramatic miracle of the healing of the epileptic boy (9:14-29), where they were unable to cast out the spirit causing the illness, and after hearing Jesus teaching on faith and prayer, the disciples hear again Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death. The disciples again are not sure what Jesus means, and when he asks them what they were discussing, they cannot answer. But Mark tells us that they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. The irony here is profound. On the way, when they should have been reflecting on the mystery of their call to follow Jesus and bear the cross, they trade ambitious desires. Jesus then calls the Twelve, the symbol of the reconstituted people who are to embody his values, places a child right in front of them and says that whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
To understand the power of Jesus’ prophetic and symbolic action, we should not think of children simply as loving and innocent. At the time of Jesus children were non-persons, without any power and often unprotected, and they function here as a symbol of powerlessness and vulnerability. Contrary to the disciples’ desire for positions of power in God’s kingdom, Jesus says they should be more concerned with welcoming into their midst the poor and vulnerable and by so doing receive both Jesus and the One who sent him (cf. Mt. 25:31-46).
Today just people will be rejected, persecuted and even killed for things as a-political as directing a school or feeding the hungry, since these can be affronts to the lifestyle of the powerful. I recall a former Jesuit student from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Andre Masse, who worked at St. Joseph’s College in Tyre, Lebanon. His goal was to provide quality education to both Christian and Moslem youth as a way to break down barriers. One afternoon as the school was closing, two hooded gunmen came into his office and murdered him. He was doing nothing more than providing children an alternative to violence and welcoming them.
The Gospel reminds the church today of the dangers of ambition and posturing for positions of power. In recent years the genie of ecclesiastical ambition has been again let out of the bottle, so much so that Cardinal Gantin, dean of the College of Cardinals and former prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, deplored episcopal careerism and said he was shocked by bishops seeking promotion from smaller to larger dioceses (Am. 6/19/99), a view echoed two months later by Cardinal Ratzinger. (Lest I suffer from seeing the speck in another’s eye and not the log in my own, the world of academic theology where I live is rife with ambition and self-promotion.) Yet the pilgrim church of God’s people continues the work of justice, and the unprotected and vulnerable are welcomed and protected. Jesus has many unnamed companions today as he follows the path of self-giving for others that leads through death to resurrection.