Our Distinctions are not our Dignity – A Meditation on an Often Forgotten Teaching of Jesus

093013There is an important lesson the Lord teaches us in the Gospel that was read at Mass this morning. For we often get anxious about rather petty notions related to our ranking and dignity, relative to one another. And thus the Gospel passage unfolds as such:

An argument arose among the disciples
about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child
and placed him 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.” (Luke 9:46-48)

It is a simple lesson really. So simple that we usually miss it altogether. And the lesson is this: For all our exalted titles, honors and distinctions, at the end of the day our greatest title is “Beloved Son (Daughter) of God.”

Jesus stands this little child in their midst, and to them who would boast of their exalted status, and who was the greatest, Jesus teaches, in effect this is how he sees them all,  and that what makes them great is simply their status as his little and beloved children.

This child is the true picture of greatness, not being a big cheese with a big hat. To be humble, and to see the dignity of humility is to see and experience Jesus.

So much for their debate about who was greatest.

We Catholics, and especially we Catholic Clergy, love our distinctions and honorific titles: Excellency, Eminence, Your Grace, Your Holiness,  Pontifex Maximus, Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Reverend Father…. you name it, we got it.

My own full title, given my status as Dean, is:

The Very Reverend Monsignor Charles Evans Pope, M.Div, MA

And you might want to add “Big Mouth Blogger” too.

You want to know what God calls me? “Carlito” (Little Charlie). For whatever “exalted” status I attain, to God, I am just a little kid that he dare not let out of his sight, lest I run into trouble. Whatever my titles (and I am grateful for every bit of graciousness extended to me), I am no more baptized than any other Christian, and my greatest title is “Child of God.”

The Pope has authority, is deserving of our respect, and rightly has titles accorded him. But he is no more baptized that you or I. Before God we are accorded this highest and equal dignity: God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved (cf Col 3:19).  We are just his little children. This is our greatest dignity, our greatest title.

Why, you may ask, do I say “little children?” Because Jesus did. And not only in this Gospel, but elsewhere. There is a tender moment when, after his resurrection, the Lord Jesus stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called out to grown men: “Little Children, have you caught anything?” The Greek is Παιδία (padia) meaning little children or infants. And while this diminutive is surely used affectionately, there is little doubt that this is how God likely sees us.

We easily forget our beloved status before God and thus divert into debates about our relative and lesser status here. We get into our own debates about who is the greatest, about who gets to do what, who gets the honors etc. We debate roles, such as why women can’t be priests, who is the head of the household, what leadership positions are open to who, etc.

Setting aside our greatest dignity, we focus on lesser distinctions.

To be sure there are distinctions and offices, some of them (not all) from God. Scripture says,

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. (1 Cor 12:28-31)

But note, what ever our distinctions, even those from God himself, our distinctions do not affect our dignity, for our dignity is something we all have by baptism. Before any other title, role, or honor, our greatest title and dignity is “Child of God and member of the Body of Christ.”

Again Scripture says regarding our dignity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Here there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:26-29)

St Paul is not denying distinctions. Of course there is male and female. But distinctions do not overrule our common and fundamental dignity: Child of God.

Do we get this? Too often, no. And thus in an instance we’re back off to debates about who is greatest and who gets to do what, who is the big cheese etc.

St. Augustine beautifully underscored how distinctions do not affect dignity when he said, For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian. To my own parishioners I have sometimes glossed on this and said, “For you I am a pastor, with you I am your brother.”

Distinctions should not be confused with dignity. Our greatest dignity and title is something we share, is something given by God, not by man: “Child of God.” Your greatest title.  A simple and often overlooked teaching by Jesus.

Perhaps to conclude with a humorous story:

One day a powerful and influential Cardinal Archbishop of a large city was in Jerusalem, in the market, strolling with his priest secretary. Coming upon a vendor, the vendor cried out: “You sir! Come here, I will give you a fair deal!” The secretary, annoyed at the deployment of the lesser title “sir” by the vendor said to the vendor, “Do you know who this is?” “No!” said the vendor. The priest said, “This is His Eminence Cardinal so and so…” “Really?!” said the vendor. “Well,….I will STILL give you a fair deal!

For our distinctions, do not affect our fundamental dignity.

I have used this video before. But here is how God Sees us:

13 Replies to “Our Distinctions are not our Dignity – A Meditation on an Often Forgotten Teaching of Jesus”

  1. What an appropriate topic for the little flower´s feast day. I am finishing history of a soul, and she does a wonderful job undermining my notions of my importance. She says that she does not take credit for her gifts, because they were only given to her to serve others–I am paraphrasing.

  2. I need reminders like this all the time. Thank you. It is one reason why I try to recite the Litany of Humility each day. It’s difficult, but I will be thinking of this while doing it. In fact, I think I will save this post into my Evernote app. I already have a folder in there with some of your posts. 🙂

  3. Thank you for another wonderful post. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less touchy and proud. It’s a great feeling to stop all that striving…

  4. Thanks Msgr! Earlier today I was reading from “Conversation with Christ” and following came to mind when I read your article: “The Story is related of a small girl who, after the reception of her first Holy Communion was questioned tenderly by her parents as to what she had done when she arrived back at her pew and bowed her head prayerfully. She hesitated momentarily, and then said in her thin, small voice: “I prayed to the Lord for Mommy and Daddy, and for my sister Helen, and my brother George; and then I recited the alphabet to Our Lord and told Him a ghost story.” 😀

  5. Fantastic.
    I wish more of us would remember the first step in the Spiritual Life – receiving the Love of God as His Children.

  6. Excellent post for yesterday’s Gospel and for today’s feast day for St. Therese of the Child Jesus. I certainly need those gentle reminders. As for the video, what a nice way to start my day with a laugh! Gracias!

  7. Indeed Monsignor, and the theology of family as well. Consequently, many ‘educated’ Catholics do not consider the virtues of humility, meekness, obedience and simplicity of heart worth pursuing in the spiritual life. Yet, according to the Gospel for the 30 Sept. and your post these childlike virtues are of the most profound and paradoxical aspects of the Gospel message. To become childlike is not spiritual immaturity, and more than just a moral requirement, it is an expression of and a participation in a dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation. The Son of God incarnated all these virtues in order to redeem mankind and to save him. And, if we do not do the same we will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

  8. All Catholics get a sort of honorific when we are Confirmed–another, new name.

  9. To my own parishioners I have sometimes glossed on this and said, “For you I am a pastor, with you I am your brother.”

  10. Thank you for this post.

    The distinction I have always wanted is the one Jesus conferred on his followers in the end: friend.

    Here’s the context as I’m sure you remember: ”

    “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
    It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.” – John 15

    While I understand the Church’s life of sacraments and sacramentals, I can not readily find a formal blessing for those who would want to have their friendship blessed. An article entitled “Jesus wants intimate friendship, Denver archbishop tells youth” [ http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/jesus-wants-intimate-friendship-denver-archbishop-tells-youth/ ] prompted my interest.

    My question is, Msgr. Pope, whether the People of God need a more formal blessing of friendships in Christ?

    Thanks in advance for your response.

  11. I’m glad you feel this way because most of the time, I call you Fr Pope like the old days. 😉

  12. Let us not forget that Jesus actually did say that we must become like little children if we are to enter heaven!

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