Sunday, September 23, 2018

Powerless and Dependent

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I would really like it if the Gospels included some more personal information about Jesus and his disciples.  Today, for example, wouldn’t it be interesting to listen in on the disciples’ conversation en route to Capernaum? We can picture Peter, perhaps still stung by Jesus’ rebuke in last week’s Gospel, reminding the others that he was still in line for the top job! We can almost hear Andrew answer, “OK, brother, but don’t forget that I met him first, and I introduced you to him!” And John chiming in, “but I’m the one he’s closest to!” And, of course, Judas, “I’m the one he trusts with the money, without me where would you all be!”

Of course, the Gospel [Mark 9:30-37] only hints at all that. It does tell us that, when Jesus asked what they had been arguing about, they were suspiciously tongue-tied. And Jesus, ever the teacher, took the opportunity to teach them a lesson. Actually, this was the second time Jesus had tried to teach them what lay ahead. But they failed to understand. So, in a world without internet, power-point presentations, and all other such gimmicks, Jesus employed a child as his instructional aide.

Children induce all sorts of reactions in people. A baby is a sure attention-grabber in any gathering. In our society, children are considered cute, innocent beings, to whom we are expected to react positively and benevolently.

Prior to the 20th century, however, there was little of the sentimentality we now attach to children and family life. In giving such prominence to a child, Jesus was giving visibility to someone who was not important and who would normally have been invisible in adult society. For most of human history, the family was primarily a socio-economic unit, not the emotional unit our sentimentality has since turned it into. A father owned the rights to his children’s labor as the owned all the other property in the family. With the economic and social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, adults began to view children as having distinct needs of their own and requiring emotional nurture from adults. Hence the new policy of awarding custody primarily to the mother after divorce, whereas previously it would have more likely been the father who got the children.

Back in the 1970s, I had a college work-study job which one day involved my attending a meeting held at a pre-school facility on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in what would then have been a pretty poor neighborhood. While we were meeting, one of the children showed up as usual, not realizing that the center was closed that day, prompting someone to comment. “That’s a smart kid! He knows he’s better off here than at home!” How smart or not he was I can’t say, but what I took away from that was that, smart or not, he was a child and so was dependent on adults’ schedules – dependent and hence powerless. His powerlessness was in part the perennial powerlessness of the poor, of course; but being a child made his powerlessness that much more so. Even rich, privileged children, after all, are ultimately dependent on adults to exercise their power and privilege on their behalf.

Yet when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what following him is all about, he pointed to a powerless child. Thus he sought to teach his clueless disciples the paradox of the powerless Christ, who, in obedience to his Father, assumed our ordinariness as his own to meet us where we are at our most powerless – in the darkness of death, where all our obsessive human preoccupation with power and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, all come to nothing.

No wonder they found him hard to understand! It seems being a disciple means more than merely listening to Jesus’ words and possibly preaching them to others. No, it means being led, by him and with him, where he was led. It means leaving behind our perpetual preoccupation with wealth, power, and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, our competitiveness with one another and within our own selves - the passions that the Epistle of James so strongly warns us about, causing us to covet but not possess, to envy but not obtain, to ask but not receive. From middle and high school popularity contests to our national political campaigns, it’s all about who is up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, who's rich and who's poor, who matters and who doesn't.

In contrast, Jesus challenges us to come to know Christ with the powerless, dependent transparency of a child – a child who knows he or she is better off in here with Jesus than out there on one’s own.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 23, 2018.

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