Readings: Sirach 2:1-11; Psalm 37; Mark 9:30-37
The first part of today's first reading seems to reflect Stoic values and attitudes. Life will be difficult so be prepared. In adversity be patient and accept whatever befalls you. Good people are refined in the furnace of suffering and humiliation. Why should we act like this? So that we will be wise in all our ways.
But the second part puts it in a distinctively biblical perspective. That means a personal, responsive, perspective. God is not just the impersonal pervading power of the Stoic universe but is personal, creative, waiting. His people can relate to Him in fear and hope, in love and trust. They can expect from God not just the relentless unfolding of an iron fate which they are best advised to adapt to rather than bang their heads against it. But here they can hope for mercy and compassion, acceptance and protection, forgiveness and salvation.
It is quite a different picture of how the universe is governed and, paradoxically, the key to it is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. For the Stoic it is irrational to fear life, God, the universe, or, it seems, anything at all. These things are as they are, and it is absurd to fear them. Of course human beings experience fear but, so the Stoic says, the intelligent person knows that fear is the result of a misunderstanding, and the virtuous person moves beyond his fears as quickly and decisively as possible.
The Bible on the other hand encourages us to fear the Lord. There are realities greater than ourselves and our own rationality. There are gifts that can be lost, a promise that can be missed, a joy that can pass us by. There is a beauty that would leave us speechless were we to glimpse it, a love that would melt our hearts were we to experience it.
Jesus once more puts the child at the centre of things. The child has not lost a capacity for fear and distress which means it has not lost a capacity for awe and wonder. We can try to be the 'greatest', calm and rational like the Stoic, controlled and undisturbed. But Jesus invites us instead to be like children: impulsive, energetic, responsive, imaginative, fearful, spontaneous, affectionate. The virtues of the Christian life emerge there: faith and trust, hope and prayer, love and compassion. They are the opposite to hardening ourselves against the slings and arrows. They require us rather to soften our hearts and to open them in compassion and mercy.