Today’s gospel begins, as so many time before, with the disciple not understanding what Jesus was telling them.
Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man”. The phrase appears 107 times in the OT, 93 times in the Book of Ezekiel alone.
For Jesus’ disciples who were God-fearing Jews, well versed in the scriptures, the meaning was unambiguous. The title refers to the Messiah who was to come.
The Messiah was the one who would finally liberate Israel, once and for all, from her oppressors. Not the one who: “will be delivered into the hands of men” and be put to death!
They did not understand what Jesus was telling them and were afraid to ask! We won’t go into what is called the “messianic secret”, that Jesus told them not to tell anyone. Not today – we don’t have enough time!
The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is undoubtedly the question that perplexed so many early Christian attempts to put together an intelligible, if possibly misguided, understanding of Jesus.
Maybe Jesus didn't really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Both “isms”, amongst others, were countered by various Church Councils in the early years of the church, but flavours of them still exist today.
Early Christians struggled with what sort of deity lets him/herself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies.
Lying underneath this passage lies the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Surely, such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.
So why didn’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain? Probably because they didn’t want to appear as confused as they undoubtedly were. Or, their distress at his teaching was so deep they feared to address it.
In our own time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions. We don’t ask those who are supposed to know. We don’t ask our friends. We don’t look it up in a book. We don’t even ask Jesus!
Tough questions like: Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil seem to succeed? If God's own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Why did God set up a world like this?
The truth is, if we don’t ask questions like this we are never likely to get any answers! Faith and hope, let alone charity, ebb away!
Our gospel story moves on to explain what happened to the disciples when they sidestepped the real questions they are afraid to ask -- they turn to arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status. When the disciples avoided asking hard questions, they ended up posturing about who is right and who is more important. “Who is the greatest?” they ask.
The epistle of James, today’s second reading, puts it very well. “Whenever you find jealously and ambition, you find disharmony!”
The first reading, from the book of Wisdom, captures the thoughts of the godless when they say: “Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us”
It leads to an easier life maybe, if we are the “virtuous”, if we don’t cross swords with these people. The reading ends with a superb example of Jewish irony: “Let us condemn him (the virtuous man) to a shameful death since he will be looked after – we have his word for it!” Ouch…… I don’t think the godless people do any favours to the virtuous people by threatening to kill them off!
How would the gospel story be different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions? What kind of conversation might have ensued between Jesus and the disciples? What kind of relationship would then have arisen with each other?
How would our stories be different if we ask Jesus tough questions? What kind of conversations might we have with Jesus? How would our life as disciples together be different as a result?
The good news is that Jesus always welcomes us, even when we do not understand, do not know or are afraid to ask.
The gospel closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, immature and undeveloped.
Whenever, Isolde, our 4 year old granddaughter, does not understand something she asks “Why?” To which we have to avoid the short answer “because!” The inevitable response to that is always another “Why?”
The assumption is that the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know things (about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff). Do you think that’s true?
We need to distinguish between being child-like and childish. If we hear or read something that seems wrong do we respond with an angry childish “rubbish” and dismiss it out of hand? Or do we pause, think about it and then say, like a child would, “Why?”
Don’t be fooled – keep asking the question “why?”