In the Gospel from yesterday’s Mass (Monday of the 26th Week) there was a good example of how completely upside down and inside out our thinking is from God’s. The Gospel opens with the disciples engaged in a dispute about which of them is the greatest. Of course the description shows how cartoonishly foolish we can be as human beings. Too often we resent others being recognized or praised; too often we inordinately seek recognition, power, prestige and popularity. But the Lord takes all of our most basic instincts on greatness and turns them on their head. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, what the Lord says is actually quite stunning.
Before looking at the text, think of what we consider to be the ingredients of greatness: power, strength, leadership ability, unique or special skills, wealth, beauty, good genes, popularity, charisma, poise, rhetorical skill. Add your own qualities, but greatness from a worldly perspective is to be able to control, through unique gifts and power.
Now consider Jesus’ words:
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.” (Lk 9:47-49)
Be careful not to be too sentimental here. It may be that we could interpret the Lord to mean that little children are the greatest because they are deserving of our care, and after all aren’t they innocent and cute, too. But the Lord is being far more radical here than sentimentality alone may appreciate. For a little child is almost none of the things on our list of qualities that make one great. A child may possess many qualities in seminal form, but as a little child, the child is not powerful, rich, famous, physically strong, having poise and rhetorical skill, and gifts for leadership. All of our criteria are lacking, yet the Lord says, this child is the greatest.
And just to make sure we don’t miss the wider point, which is not about children per se, the Lord adds, “The least among you is the greatest.” In other words, the Lord sets aside all of the traits we use to assign greatness. Indeed, our standards are laughable to God, and our running about to attain greatness amounts to climbing a ladder of success that is leaning against the wrong wall.
Elsewhere the Lord adds another standard of greatness:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Imagine the following scenario. We are in a large gathering at a local park, and there are folks of all social strata and condition present. Perhaps drinks and hors d’oeuvres are being served by waiters and waitresses. In one particular area are gathered Hollywood stars, big wig political leaders, and other cultural glitterati. As most of us scan the crowd our eye is drawn immediately to the famous and we lift up our cell phone cameras and try to get pictures.
But if God were to walk into this crowd, where would his eye be drawn? Where would God “run with his cell phone” and start snapping pictures? Most likely his eye would be drawn to those serving the hors d’oeuvres. Perhaps too his eye would be drawn to the edge of the park where some of the poor are gathered and wondering what all the excitement is about. Some of them are begging. Yet again, there are some in the crowd who have come from the local group home. They are mentally handicapped, many of them wheelchair bound, others not able to talk but making wild gestures and groans. God’s eye is drawn there too. “But God, but God! Look at all those famous people over there! (we say), pointing to the glitterati. And God, looking puzzled, says, “Where? Who are they??”
Perhaps an unlikely scenario to you? But does not scripture say that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted, that he looks with special regard on the needy, the lowly, the poor and afflicted? Does he not hear the cry of the poor?(cf Ps. 34)
Who really catch God’s eye and have his ear? You may have your own idea. But remember, the Lord says, “the least among you is the greatest.” He also says that many who are last shall be first in the Kingdom (Matt 20:16). Indeed, those who serve are greater than those who are served. We have it all backwards in this world.
Personal story: Many years ago (1991), my sister Mary Anne died at age 30. She was mentally ill all her life: 17 different mental hospitals and at least that many group homes. Her affliction was serious. She was a textbook schizophrenic. She heard voices, and her mental condition quite tormented her. She died in fire likely set by her, for that too was a common trait of her mental illness, along with numerous other attempts on her own life. But in her lucid periods she was quite delightful and loved God and us.
As I consider her life, I have often thought of those words of the Lord, “The last shall be first.” For in this life, my sister was surely among the last. But the sheer joy and great reversal is that in the Kingdom of Heaven she is among the first. I sure that if I am blessed to see heaven, I will have to journey right up near the Throne in heaven to find her mansion, mine being more than a few blocks away from the “Gold Coast” of heaven. I only wish it had not taken her death for me to appreciate her dignity, for too easily I missed it while she lived here. Indeed, she was covered with glory on account of being the “least” and among the “last.” But in God’s eyes she was always among the greatest and the first. I am so sorry that I did not see this while she still lived here.
Yes, this Gospel is radical and puts to the lie almost every standard we have of greatness. I wonder, if we took this gospel to heart, if we would not run out and find the faithful poor, the needy, the handicapped, the chronically sick, and beg their prayers. If a gospel like this could drop 15 inches from our brain to our hearts, we would esteem those who serve us, we would look up to so many of the faithful poor, the needy, the handicapped, and see already their status as first and greatest in God’s kingdom. Rather than pity a Down Syndrome person, we would esteem him or her as a king or queen in waiting, set to rule high up near the throne in heaven.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts, my ways above your ways (Is 55:8-9). Indeed, our worldly thinking is 180 degrees out of phase, it is upside down and inside out. Pray for a new mind and heart.
Image credit: dornob.com
Here is a video I put together of my sister Mary Anne on What would have been her 50th birthday.