Ars Praedicandi: 25th Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While I understand that the prophetic word of God
is not designed to predict the future,
I could not help but wonder
as I pondered this passage
in which Jesus overhears his disciples
arguing about which of them was the greatest
if God had anticipated the 21st-century political scene in the U.S.
in which incumbents and upstart candidates for office
do what they can to impress upon audiences of every stripe,
how they are the greatest among their peers,
and the messianic answer to what of sounds like
the imminent demise of our country without them.

It is a struggle as old as humankind:
the struggle to be number one, to be on top,
to calculate one’s worth.
But too often through the perceived inferiority of others.

And the hidden danger in this race to the top
at the expense of another’s reputation or dignity
is not only a potential for pride or self-righteousness,
but something more insidious, more destructive
as pointedly noted in today’s second reading.

It is not very often that we find a clear correlation
netween the gospel and the second reading.
The first reading is explicitly chosen to correspond to the gospel:
so today’s first reading from Wisdom
echoes Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death

The second reading is a semi-continuous reading
from one of the epistles.
For 4 weeks now we have been reading from James’ letter.

Happily, there is a convergence between Mark and James today,
almost as if James is commenting on this apostolic squabble.

And James’ warning
in light of the gospel spat over who’s the greatest
is not the onset of narcissism or self-absorption,
but the specter of war,
the abandonment of mercy,
the demise of peace,
and the onset of violence.

Recently I listened to Eric Metaxas’
riveting biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Subtitled: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. [1]

It is a fascinating examination,
of a remarkable young Lutheran Pastor
deeply devoted to traditional German culture
and willing to sacrifice his life to save his country.

It is also a heart-wrenching exposé
of the fallacious myth of a superior race
and the horrific tragedies that resulted from such arrogance.

James wrote: “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.”

This not only defines the Nazi regime of a distant past
but also the disorder and foulness
that yet abounds in today’s world
as the lives of the innocent in war-ravaged countries,
as well as on the streets of our cities,
are persistently cheapened and discarded.

And what does Jesus propose in the face of this race to the top
with its potential for violence and the oppression of the innocent?

When a child has wandered into the midst of his inner circle,
ever the extemporaneous teacher
Jesus wraps his arms around the kid
and informs the burly fishermen,
the so-called adults in the group,
that if they have a future with him
their future is to be found in their past – in their childhood.

Placing childhood at the center of discipleship
is at least disconcerting, if not problematic.

While I am sure that most of you were perfect children,
childhood seems an odd symbol of Christian discipleship
since children are by nature self-centered,
believing the world revolves around their wants & needs.

I remember months after the birth of the first nephew
my sleep-deprived and exhausted sister
announced that her child was a terrorist
and she was captive to his will.

Like many offspring, human children are naturally selfish,
a biological drive imbedded in their DNA
to increase their chances of survival.

They are also prone to violence if deprived of what they want:
just put 2 three-year-old boys in a room
with 1 red truck and see how long before struggle ensues.

Maybe, however, it is not childishness that Jesus is offering
as his gospel strategy for discipleship
and the eradication of all rivalry from his inner circle.
But maybe it is the childlikeness Jesus himself exhibits,
those treasured traits of childhood,
that have been squeezed out of us
by education, and competition, and prejudice:

like the innocence that disinclines them
from judging people by the color of their skin,
the size of their bank account
or the crowd of facial wrinkles;

like their ability to live in the moment
uncomprehending how many months to Christmas
or weeks to their birthday
or how long to drive to grandma’s house
whereas the 5-year-old, prepared to make a 3-hour trip
with his parents to see relatives is
in the back seat he surrounded by coloring books,
Mom’s iPod, snacks, and juice boxes.
Five minutes into the journey he begins to persistently ask
“are we there yet?”
until the father explodes and tells him if he asks again
he is going to be punished.
There is an extended moment of quiet,
until this small voice from the back seat asks
“will I still be five when we get there”?

It’s also their gift of wonder,
the ability to be entertained by a balloon
or the simplest of peek-a-boo games
often more captivated by the wrapping paper or box
than the expensive gift waiting inside.

Then there’s that natural skin hunger,
their instinctive relationality,
desiring to be touched, stroked, rocked, and held.

And maybe most of all it is their wanton neediness,
their inability to do virtually anything for themselves
whether acquiring food and seeking shelter.

The truth about children is that they have no product
or worth other than themselves,
a worth God deems as incalculable.

That was more true in Jesus’ time than in our own. [2]
Western cultures tend to place children first
with the instinct to risk everything to save the child.
Yet ancient Middle Eastern cultures would place the child last.
Even Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire
a husband was obliged to save his father first
then his mother, next his wife, and last his child.

When famine arose children would be fed last after the adults
within the family, the child had next to no status
and was considered equal to a slave
they were not always doted upon as prized possessions
which is maybe why a child seems to aimlessly wander
into Jesus’ company
unattended, unsupervised, undervalued.

Children in the culture that shaped the disciples’ worldview
weren’t the only ones who were devalued;
they shared space on the margins with many others:
the disabled, the sick, widows, and the unclean.

When Jesus challenges his adult compatriots to be like children,
he effectively insults them,
disparages their physical and social status
and illustrates that, as one blogger put it,
the greatest among them was
“twenty-six inches tall, with limited vocabulary, no job, zero net worth, a nobody. And God’s chosen agent.”

And what is the upshot of this messianic lesson
this apostolic comeuppance,
this dressing down of discipleship,
this ascendancy of a child in God’s emerging reign?

Simply put there is no one whom we may safely ignore
for they in truth may be God’s messenger,
especially in their wanton need.

And recognizing their innate dignity,
their ability to reflect the very countenance of God,
is the first and final antidote to violence,
a true step on what our second reading describes
as the road to peace.

We cannot return to our childhood,
nor does the gospel call us to do so.
Actually, part of taking up our cross and following Christ
is recognizing something of the sadness of growing up
with all of its challenges and burdens.

The poet Billy Collins captures some of this poignancy
In his eloquent reflection about turning 10 years old.

He writes:

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed. [3]

It is true: there is some sadness in leaving behind
those Peter Pan instincts and having to grow up,
which requires us to admit the possibility of a cross in our present,
or certainly in our future,
and the recognition that when we fall, we do unfortunately bleed.

But in the demanding gift of an adult faith
there is also the grace
to see every child of God as though
there is nothing under their skin but light
and to embolden them to shine,
to treasure their radiance and affirm their dignity.

In doing so we pray that we too
will recover some of that child-like luminosity
and so reaffirm our own identity as children of God
commissioned to radiate the light imparted to us in baptism
that still courses through our being.
For we too are children of the light,
sister and brothers of the eternal luminosity
revealed in the eternal Christ, Lord and God, forever and ever.

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2010).

[2] What follows is reliant upon John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday: Cycle B.  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), 139-141.

[3] Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten,” from The Art of Drowning (Pittsburgh – London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), 48-49.

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