The lowest, poorest, most despised
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 25, 2012 (25B)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
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In our Gospel passage today Jesus takes a little child as an example. We are enchanted by this and we think of the touching innocence, the unspoiledness and the trusting nature of a child and how we ought to imitate this in our own lives.
Jesus seems here to be inviting us to live lives of purity and virtue; a sheltered sort of life, a life free from moral conflicts and compromise. And many Christian groups over the centuries have gone in this direction and lived their lives withdrawn from the world and in quite an ascetical manner.
But to think that this is what Jesus means is to misunderstand the place of children at the time of Jesus. In our world children are a rare commodity; families are small and great expectations are placed on those children that we do have.
It was not like this in the ancient world. There were a lot more children around but people were so used to a high rate of infant and child mortality that no great expectations could be placed on children since there was no guarantee that they would live till adulthood.
What Jesus is pointing to when he places his hands around the shoulders of that child is the child’s lack of status. Children were simply disregarded—they had no opinions worth listening to, they had no power or authority, they had nothing to offer. To show favour to a child was worthless.
There is also a little play on words involved in this passage because in Aramaic the words servant and child are interchangeable. That in itself reveals how patronising people must have been towards servants.
Jesus has just been talking to the disciples who were arguing about which should be the greatest. He tells them that if anyone wants to be first he must make himself the servant of all.
Jesus’ purpose in this is not to give innocence a high value but to give high value to the acceptance of those without power. When you accept someone whom everyone else considers of no account; then you are welcoming Jesus himself.
Each person is created by God and is therefore of inestimable worth. The lowest, poorest, most despised human being is a true child of God and the same high price has been paid for them as for you and me—the price of the blood of Jesus, the Son of God.
We spend so much energy classifying people. We categorise almost everyone we meet: they are either friend or foe, high class or low class, rich or poor, good or bad, nice or not nice, to be admired or to be despised, having good taste or had taste, having good looks or not, etc, etc.
We judge them by their looks, by their company, by their clothing, by where they live, by their colour, by the signals they give off, by the type of car they drive. And we do all this before we even speak to them.
But here in this passage Jesus indicates clearly that this is not what God does. He values people simply as people. He draws no distinction between us. He values every single one. And if there is any favour it is clearly directed towards the poor and the despised and the downtrodden—they very ones we consider of less worth than ourselves.
If you, at any particular time in your life, feel that this applies to you; if you find yourself friendless or undervalued, cut off from others or simply ignored, then think of that little child and how Jesus put his arms round him. Then think of yourself in that child’s place with the comforting protecting arms of Jesus around you and feel the consolation and hope that this brings.
The passage we are given today begins with Jesus making a clear prediction of his passion. On this journey towards Jerusalem there are in fact three predictions of his passion, the one we have read today is actually the second one. When you read Mark’s whole Gospel through these three predictions sound like a bell tolling—a death knell.
On the first of these occasions (8:31-33) Peter remonstrates with him and Jesus says those memorable words: Get behind me Satan. This second time the apostles were afraid to ask him what he meant and the last time the simply ignore what he has said.
As if in order to underline that the apostles have misunderstood Jesus, the Evangelist Mark tells us that immediately after the last two of these passion predictions they squabble about who will have the highest position in the Kingdom.
This is the very opposite of what Jesus is about. That is why on this second occasion he tells them that if you want to be first you must be the servant of all and why he put the child before them as an example.
The same goes for the third prediction of the passion (10:32-45). The apostles ignore it and then James and John sidle up and ask for favoured places in the Kingdom. Jesus remonstrates with them and again stresses the point: Anyone who wants to become first must be a slave to all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So there you have it. We Christians must never ever lord it over others. We Christians must never look down on other people. We Christians must regard ourselves first and foremost as servants of others. Not easy to do but clear enough.
It is interesting and quite pointed that when Jesus actually does choose an apostle to take first place he chooses Peter. This is the same Peter whom Jesus himself called Satan and who betrayed him three times. That this weakest of all the apostles is raised up by Jesus to be the first among them exemplifies this extremely important teaching of Our Lord.
We do as he does. We bear his name and we act on his behalf in the world today. We may hold office or positions of respect but we realise that this does not place us any higher than any of our brothers and sisters in the human family.
We love the Lord and we love those whom he loves and this includes the most disregarded souls who walk this earth.
In Vienna in Austria there is a church in which the former ruling family in Austria, the Hapsburgs, are buried. When royal funerals used to arrive the mourners knocked at the door of the church to be allowed in. A priest inside would ask ‘Who is it that desires admission here?’ A guard would call out, ‘His apostolic majesty, the emperor’. The priest would answer, ‘I don’t know him’. They would knock a second time, and again the priest would ask who was there. The funeral guard outside would announce, ‘The highest emperor’. A second time the priest would say, ‘I don’t know him’. A third time they would knock on the door and the priest would ask ‘Who is it?’ The third time the answer would be, ‘A poor sinner, your brother’ and the priest would let them in