Thursday, October 02, 2014

Who Is the Greatest?

The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”  He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.  Matthew 18:1-3

In the face of the dangers (real and imagined) that we hear about daily, there may be no aspect of Catholic piety which is as comforting as the belief that an angel protects all of us from the dangers of ISIS, ebola, White House fence-jumpers, and people who will kidnap children and college students.  Lucky for us that “guardian angels” are not only for children.  They represent individuals before God, to watch over them always, to aid their prayer and to present their souls to God at death.  As we get older, we can rely on the hope of Job for these angels to steer us back onto the path which Jesus asks us to walk with Him.

Children – and protecting children -- play a pivotal role in Sacred Scripture.  In the Hebrew Bible, one of the central responsibilities for the ruler was to care for orphans and widows.  Thus, a mark of a great king was how the least powerful in the kingdom were treated. 

The dawning of the New Testament would challenge the people to live up to that same standard because when the Lord came into the world, he did not come as a powerful king but as a feeble, powerless child dependent upon others to make his way in the world. The challenge was to care for this baby who was the key to the hopes of our past, present and future.

Once Jesus started his ministry, we see him interact with children often and, like today, use children as the image and ideal for the greatest in the Kingdom.  The delivery of this lesson would puzzle the disciples because children had no power in ancient Palestine.  Dismissed also was the bickering between disciples about who would sit at the right and left hand of the Lord in heaven.  Jesus, instead, wants them (and by extension us) to aspire to be like children, not like the rich and the powerful.

How did they do?  Did the disciples take on this mantle of innocence and obedience?  We get a hint at that answer in John 21.  After being locked in the upper room and failing to go out in the world and preach the Good News, Peter announces that he is going fishing instead.  The other disciples follow him.

So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”  They answered him, “No.” (John 21:3-5)

Jesus addresses the boatful of his disciples as “children.”  He recognizes that after the fire of experience, they are ready for greater things.  Rather than looking back at what has transpired – the witness of his public execution, the fear and denial, and the failure to follow his instructions, Jesus has not given up on them.  Jesus gives them another command.  This time, they follow without question, even though as experienced fishermen who have spent an unproductive night on the lake with their nets, they should be dubious of this stranger on the beach.  The disciples put aside the pride of experience.  They do not say, “Who are you to tell us to keep fishing.  With all of our experience, we know it will fail.  Instead, they obey and meet with great success.   

Popular culture wants us to be “like Mike” (a la Michael Jordan) if we just buy the right shoes, suits or shirts.  It holds up the multi-million dollar bonuses of the Wall Street titans to tempt us.  Then, it ranks the best college degrees to prepare us for such lucrative careers.  In my case, that message came about 40 years too late.  Popular culture, the media and big advertising tells us to search out the end of year deals on a bigger, brighter, fancier car, truck or minivan.  They serve up the latest technology promises to deliver us from our dreary existence until the operating system crashes and our private data is stolen.
Yet none of this gets us on the path Jesus teaches today.  What will it take for us to be like children? 

In some ways, advanced age brings about that level of dependence.  When we no longer have the strength of mind nor body, we must surrender to others to care for ourselves – like the anaweim (poor widows and orphans) in the Bible. 

However, rather than waiting for time to take its toll, we have to put aside our wealth, our professional careers, our pride, and our possessions among other things in order to take on the demeanor of children of God. 

What possessions and characteristics are you ready to let go?  If change is the end result of what we learn, how will you change as you consider the lesson Jesus taught today?

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