In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me (Mark 9:37). Christian theology has attempted to provide explanations for the “why,” and certain of these explanations have been read back into the Gospel texts. But the fact is that Jesus does not explain the “why”. We can only deduce it in reading the Gospels. Throughout his ministry, Jesus associates with the last and the least in society — Gentile women, bleeding women, lepers, raging demoniacs, tax collectors and other notorious “sinners”. He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation. For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. - Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. - Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. - Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives.
The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus teaches repeatedly, his way of greatness is the path of life. The definition of greatness Jesus offers seems crazy initially because it is so completely, utterly counter-cultural. He calls us to imagine that true greatness lies in service by actually taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore, or even worse. This insight to Jesus the Servant, without a doubt offers, us as a congregation, a Catholic parish, a vision for our common life. But it also applies to each of us more personally.
- How are we doing, that is, with measuring our success, our greatness, not by what we take in, but by what we give away? - Not by the influence we wield, but by the service we offer? - Not by accumulating more, but by sharing what we already have? - Not by being first, but by being eager to work hard in order to see others move ahead? Make no mistake. This is hard stuff, absolutely and totally different than what the culture – whether in the first century or the twenty-first – tells us. And so, as it was hard for the disciples so now it’s also hard for us.
They didn’t understand what Jesus meant, and so they fell into the trap of putting themselves ahead of everyone else. We will often do the same: 1. Looking out for ourselves rather than others; 2. Trusting less in God for our security than we do our wealth; 3. Shutting others out rather than inviting them in; 4. Seeking our welfare rather than that of those around us. But here’s the thing: the road the disciples are traveling with Jesus when they fall into their petty arguments about who is the greatest … is the road to Jerusalem. And the last steps bring them to the cross. Even while his disciples misunderstand, don’t believe, or just plain ignore what he is saying, Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and to the cross … willingly … in order to sacrifice everything for them … and for us. So, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to try to be more like Jesus the Servant? While there are many, many different ways … I’m inviting you to join us on a new journey of service … to help us with launching a free legal clinic here in Union County … for the poor, vulnerable … for those like the children in Jesus’ time who had no status, and only trampled rights … I’m proud to have been a part of the foundation of The Waterfront Project and I invite Rebeccah Symes the Executive Director forward to speak to us about it now … Rebeccah …
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