Sunday, September 19, 2021

Like a Child

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I really wish the Gospels included more information about Jesus’ disciples.  For example, wouldn’t it be interesting to listen in on the disciples’ conversation en route to Capernaum? I 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! I 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!”

Instead, the Gospel tells us that when Jesus asked what they had been arguing about, they were suddenly (and suspiciously) tongue-tied, and that 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.  In a world without power-point presentations and 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 individuals, to whom we are expected to react positively and benevolently.

Benevolence is certainly good. But what is distinctive to childhood – and certainly what Jesus’ audience would have responded to – is the dependence and hence powerlessness. That is inherent in being a child. The poor are particularly powerless, of course, at all stages of life. So poor children are especially powerless. But even rich children, as long as they remain children, are dependent on someone else to exercise power on their behalf.

So, when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what following him is all about, he pointed to a powerless child. In this way, 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, in his economic and political poverty, where we are all 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 power, wealth, 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 school popularity contests to their imitations in our national political campaigns, it’s all about who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out.  

In contrast, Jesus challenges us to come to know Christ with the powerless. He invites us to compensate for our own limited moral experience by paying attention – difficult as that may be - to the experiences of others, whose lived reality of poverty or other forms of powerlessness can cut through our comfortable self-understanding and teach us something new, expose us to realities and insights we would not otherwise be exposed to.

Good teacher that he was, Jesus did not totally demolish the ambition of his disciples. Instead he gave them a new definition of greatness to aspire to. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

That can be quite frightening, even threatening. Certainly, it scared the disciples. And it scares most of us most of the time, which is why we tend to pass over it as quickly as possible in search of some more “upbeat,” ostensibly friendly message, as if Jesus’ point were to affirm us and our way of life.

But this ultimately this is the challenge of a becoming a disciple – for all Christians from first to last.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, September 19, 2021.

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