The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Wisdom 2:12,17-20 + James 3:16—4:3 + Mark 9:30-37
September 19, 2021
… He said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My Name, receives Me ….”
A priest serving in a rural area was asked how many families were in his parish. He jokingly responded, “About seven.” His point was that most of his parishioners were from large, extended families, whose roots stretched back to the founding of the parish. Sacred Scripture is similar.
There are eight “families” of books in the Bible, and each of the 73 books of Scripture belongs to one of those eight families. To use an analogy, consider Great-uncle Ebenezer. He and his first wife begat four children. Then after her death, Great-uncle married again, and by his second wife begat four more children.
So in the Bible, the Old Testament is made up of four “families” of books: the books of the Law, of history, of wisdom, and of the prophets. These books are the fruit of the covenant between the Lord and Israel.
Likewise, in the New Testament there are four “families” of books: the accounts of the Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, the apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation. These books are the fruit of the covenant between Christ and the Church.
This background helps us appreciate the context of today’s Second Reading. For four weeks now, the Second Reading at Sunday Mass has come from James, and this will continue through next Sunday. James is one of the 21 books of the New Testament in the family of apostolic letters or “epistles”. But you can further divide that family of 21 books according to which apostles wrote them. Two-thirds of the letters were written by Saint Paul, while out of the remaining seven, only one was written by St. James.
The Letter of St. James is arguably the most practical of all the New Testament letters. James takes a no-nonsense attitude towards following Jesus. The focus of St. James in his letter is not some lofty—though important—matter such as how three divine Persons eternally live as one God. Instead, St. James deals with down-to-earth questions of fallen human nature. Given this, the Letter of James is a good resource for making a general examination of conscience, and for spiritual reading each Lent.
Listen to how plain-spoken St. James is today when he asks, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? … You covet but do not possess. … You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask[,] but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, [in order] to spend it on your passions.” That’s what you call matter of fact!
St. James focuses first upon diagnosis: exposing the spiritual wound and underlying disease to view. But then he directs our attention to the cure: the divine Physician, Jesus Christ. We receive the grace of Christ’s saving remedy through the sacraments. Yet we need to conform our lives to the life of Christ so as to fittingly receive this gift, at least to the extent of having no more than venial sins.
That is to say that if someone were to receive the sacraments while continuing to live a life like that which St. James is preaching against—what the Church calls living in mortal sin—then Christ’s grace would not abide in him or her. St. Paul speaks more directly to this point, explaining a further consequence: “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” [1 Cor 11:27].
If we were to consider the Gospel’s demands to be mere ideals, and deny that serious sin—whether a single mortal sin or a mortally sinful state of life—prevents one from receiving the sacraments, we would act against the apostolic teachings of the Church. The successors of the apostles have the weighty pastoral responsibility of shepherding the wayward back to what today is called “Eucharistic coherence”.
The Gospel passage today helps us see what this process of spiritual conformity asks from us. We need to conform ourselves to the image of the Cross, because this image consists of being “the last of all and the servant of all.” This image consists of receiving a child in Christ’s Name, so to receive Christ Himself, and so to receive the One who sent Christ. To receive this One—God the Father—is to allow God the Father to strengthen His likeness within us by means of His daily bread.