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Sunday 19 September 2021

Trinity 16, Twenty-fifth in Ordinary time, Proper 20

The Servant Church

Wisdom 1:16-2.1, 12-22; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37


By Kevin O’Brien

Parish Permanent Deacon

Context: a suburban Catholic Church, North Surrey Sunday Mass

Aim: to reinforce the need to be a Servant Church, seeking the good of all

In our Gospel today we meet Jesus just after he has come down from the mountain, where he was transfigured. He is instructing his disciples as the authentic source of divine truth for all those that would listen to him. But they aren’t listening to him, are they? Peter, James, and John have just witnessed something extraordinary and special on the mountain. They are in awe of what they have just been part of, certainly; but in discussion with the other disciples their only interest is in sorting out the pecking order amongst themselves.

All very human, of course! They are focusing on what they believe is about to happen: Israel becoming a kingdom again, with Jesus as the Messiah, an Israelite king. They are envisaging power and being in control. God is on their side! They are so full of themselves, ‘on another planet.’ They really don’t hear Jesus telling them, ‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death, and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.’


Through today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to bring them (and us) back to reality: ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’ Jesus’ words would be powerful at any time but are particularly significant in these challenging times of the pandemic. There are many on the ‘Front Line’ whom we now recognise as ‘key workers’ - and thank God for them wherever they are, both in this country and throughout the whole world.

But what about the rest of us? As Christians should we not all be ‘key workers’, servants of all, at all times, not just during a pandemic? Jesus sets a child in front of those first disciples and in front of us today, reminding us that in his kingdom, the first will be last and the last first.


Sadly, throughout history the misuse of power and control has often been the goal of human beings and just like the disciples coming down the mountain after the Transfiguration, humanity isn’t always listening to Jesus’ teaching. For instance, here in the United Kingdom poverty is increasing; 14.5 million live in relative poverty and the deterioration in the situation of so many is not all down to the pandemic. A further 200,000 children had entered the poverty trap in the year before the pandemic struck. Yet we are considered to be the fifth richest country in the world. Again, the government plans to increase our defence spending by £24.1 billion over the next four years, while also cutting Overseas Development Aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP. Pointing these things out is ‘all very political’ of course, but life is political, as are our choices about what we do and how we do it.

Power and control are of course not the problem as such, the issue is how we use them, because those of us who have that power and control have also a responsibility to use it for the ‘Common Good’ of humanity. In 1996 the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales produced a quite strongly worded statement, The Common Good and The Catholic Church’s Social Teaching. To quote a few lines from its introduction: ‘In every human society respect for human dignity requires that, so far as possible, basic human needs are met. The systematic denial of compassion by individuals or public authorities can never be a morally justified political option.’ Yet eight years later, in 2004, the UK Foodbank Network was launched, and we have now more than two thousand food banks throughout the UK. Have we lost our willingness to speak out, putting such issues ‘on the back-burner’ of our minds?

The Common Good is a key element in our living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ today; and if we as Christians, the Church, are to be ‘key workers’, servants of all, at all times, then there is an urgent need to ask ourselves what will serve the ‘Common Good’ of the whole of humanity, putting the theory into practice. 25 years ago, the Bishops’ document put the challenge well: ‘The future of humanity does not depend on political reform, social revolution, or scientific advance, something else is needed, it starts with true conversion of mind and heart.’ That is fundamentally a question of how we view others, especially those without power or prestige. We need to take seriously Jesus’ own words: ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

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