The Gospel reading this morning reaches its climax with Jesus using a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility by presenting one of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society as an example. Jesus reminds us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and as such are of infinite worth.
Jesus and His disciples are passing through Galilee for what proves to be the last time, before He makes his way to Jerusalem for His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Once again Christ teaches the disciples about what is going to happen. It is likely that Jesus referred to passages in Scripture which prophecy about His Passion, such as our first reading this morning from the Book of Wisdom. In the passage wicked men are plotting the downfall and death of a righteous man:
‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.’ (Wisdom 2:12)
This verse encapsulates the approach taken by the Scribes and Pharisees in the Passion narrative. Throughout the Gospels Jesus criticises the Pharisees for keeping the Letter of the Law, but being far from its Spirit. His enemies will see Jesus condemned to a shameful death, and as He dies they wait to see if God will deliver Him. It is easy to see how before His Death it would be hard for people to understand Jesus’ teaching, but once He had died and risen again, everything would become clear.
‘But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.’ (Mk 9:32)
Admitting that you do not understand something is difficult. The disciples are confused and afraid. They do not want to own up to their lack of understanding, so instead, they focus upon themselves and their own importance:
‘And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.’ (Mk 9:33-34)
The disciples are silent, because they are embarrassed. They know that what they were discussing was basically pointless, and against Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom. Jesus does not tell His disciples off, instead He instructs them:
‘And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”’ (Mk 9:35-37)
Jesus sits down, adopting the position of the teacher in the Ancient World, and then He teaches. The Kingdom of God tends to turn human values upside down, and this is no exception. Leaders are called to be servants. The Evangelist uses the Greek word diakonos which means ‘servant’. From this we get the word ‘deacon’. Jesus is telling The Twelve that they need to be deacons, and that leadership involves serving others, not being important. To reinforce His point Jesus puts a child in front of them, and then embraces the child. In the Ancient World children lacked rights, or status, and, like children today, were dependent upon adults. By embracing someone weak and powerless, Jesus is showing the disciples that God’s Kingdom sees things differently from the world.
Christianity has been described as ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children’. [Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59 ] These were the words of Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, quoted by Origen in the mid 3rd century AD. It is, in fact, a religion for everyone. All are welcome. At its heart, Christianity is a religion of paradox, where strength is shown in weakness. This is especially true of the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. The Mystery of the Cross, is part of the enigma of God’s Love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, we see the supreme demonstration of Love, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile and heal humanity.
Christians are called to be like this child: weak, powerless, insignificant, and humble. Through such humility God welcomes humanity back into a personal relationship, offering us His love. Opposed to this is the desire for power and prestige which sees the disciples arguing over who is the greatest, or the quarrels dealt with in the Letter of James. Rather than argument, however, a Christian community should be characterised by peace:
‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’ (James 3:17-18)
This is a description of love in action, lived out in a way that builds people up. It is what Christ demonstrates to us as how we should be as Christians. We are called to live in a way which offers the world an alternative to striving after power, wealth and influence. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love. Love can only be offered. Love can be accepted or rejected. Love lies at the heart of any relationship.
Acknowledging our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us. Recognising this is a sign of humility: accepting our need for God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. Through our complete reliance upon God and His Grace, we prepare ourselves for Heaven where we hope to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.