Last week, the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest and this week, like Joshua in the first reading, they were complaining about other people stealing their thunder, getting in on their act without official permission. Jesus has already told them that if they want to be the greatest in his kingdom, they have to be the least of all and the servant of all, and to welcome even the children. Now he tells them again that people don’t become great by working miracles but by the smallest acts of kindness, like giving someone who’s thirsty a cup of cold water. What makes us great is being loved by God and treating everyone else as a beloved child of God.
James, in the second reading, drives this challenge home: those who think they’ve made it because they’re rich and powerful are going to get a shock, especially if their success is built on exploiting their workers and cheating the poor. The wealth that gives them their status is rotting. The wages they’ve held back are crying out for justice.
These themes are close to the heart of Pope Francis: at the United Nations and in the US Congress he will be repeating his plea for justice, especially for the poor and for the environment, because it is always the poor who suffer most when the environment is damaged.
Jesus urges us, in strong images, to get rid of anything that is holding us back from treating everyone as a sister or brother, from living the full freedom of the children of God. He doesn’t mean us literally to be cutting off parts of our bodies, but he is warning us that living as he lives is costly: we might say it could cost us an arm and a leg.
The real cost will be different for each of us, as we face different challenges and temptations, but there are some challenges we need to face together. The world God has created is perfectly capable of sustaining all the people who live in it, if its resources are shared equally. This is the question Pope Francis is raising: How can we make sure that all our sisters and brothers have the basic necessities of life and that the riches of our planet will be there to sustain future generations?