Sunday, September 25, 2016

Who Is Least Among All of You

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child
and placed it by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”
Luke 9:46-48

Lord Jesus, help us to recognize you in the poor and suffering that I meet. Help us to put aside our petty jealousies and be prepared to defend liberty, enable people to dream, strive for justice of the oppressed and sow peace through dialogue with each other and with God.

With so much attention on cultural, sociological and political topics, it is fitting that today’s Gospel focuses on attitudes that are opposed to Christian discipleship: rivalry and intolerance of outsiders. We get lessons in who is the least important (the person we should try to emulate) and who acts like they are most important (and misses out on important work being done by strangers).

One of the figures in modern culture who was covered more by the news media than most was Mohammed Ali (nee Cassius Clay).  Ali like to call himself “The Greatest” as a way of intimidating his opponents.  However, he knew that his words would not knock out an opponent in the ring.  Only his fists could do that. Many people are alive today who never saw Ali fight.  They can watch him on YouTube or read about him in Wikipedia.  But those opposed to Ali will not feel the sting of his punches sitting in their desk chair.  You had to climb into the ring with Ali – if you dared.

The reputation of Jesus was spreading.  Yet Christ had to be careful not to let the adulation of the crowd go to his head lest he feel that he was “the greatest.”  Thus, the story of a powerless child resonated with his audience.  Imagine being that child.  Perhaps she was innocently playing with some friends or walking to the well with her mother when Jesus gently picked her up from the sandy desert road.  He brought that child over to the disciples to teach them a lesson.  By the end of this episode, perhaps his followers felt rightly chastised.  I know I would probably feel like a tobacco company CEO testifying before a Senate investigative committee when Jesus was done dressing me down.  

Yet the disciples persisted in questioning Jesus – this time about someone who was casting out demons but was not from Galilee, or a member of their temple, or part of their extended family.  These disciples – still before the Resurrection – wanted to keep Jesus to themselves.  Jesus, however, kept reminding them that they needed to spread the Word far and wide even to those who were strangers.

Michael Card helps us to realize the radical Amazing Jesu message. 

The answer from Jesus speaks once more of the radically reversed nature of the kingdom. The way up is down. Being wise means embracing the foolishness of the gospel. To be free you must become a slave and submit to his gentle yoke. The way to become truly rich is to give it all away and travel with nothing, like a beggar. And here, if you want to become great, you must be like this child.[i]

Whether fighting amongst themselves, challenging Jesus or giving in to the Satan who tries to derail Job, we share the battles that faced the original disciples.  In addition, we also face the conflicts and distractions of modern culture all around us. Are our ambitions to serve the Lord or to serve our own agenda?

Sometimes it helps to remember that we have some very modern role models in American society.  One year ago, Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States.  In his unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis singled out four lives of unlikely Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. 

The 24 SEPT 2015 Papal Address to Congress bears remembering[ii]:

It is [our] duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, [overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past]. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).

Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.

He ended with these words:

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

In these remarks, I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continues to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

Four individuals.  Four dreams.  Let us put aside our petty jealousies and be prepared to make these dreams become reality:  defending liberty, enabling people to dream, striving for justice of the oppressed and sowing peace through dialogue with each other and with God.

[i] Michael Card.  Luke: The Gospel of Amazement. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (2011). P. 128

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