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. 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. To them who would boast of their exalted status and argue about who was the greatest, Jesus demonstrates that this is how he sees them all. What makes them great is simply their status as his beloved little children.
This child is the true picture of greatness, not some big cheese with a big hat. To be humble and to recognize 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 honorifics: Excellency, Eminence, Your Grace, Your Holiness, Pontifex Maximus, Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Reverend Father … you name it, we’ve got it.
My own full title, given my status as Dean, is this:
The Very Reverend Monsignor Charles Evans Pope, M. Div., M.A.
(You might want to add “Big Mouth Blogger” to that, too!)
Do you want to know what God calls me? “Carlito” (Little Charlie). 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 than you or I. Before God each one of us is accorded this highest 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, not only in this Gospel, but elsewhere as well. 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 word used is Παιδία (padia) meaning little children or infants. While this diminutive is surely used affectionately, there is little doubt that this is how God sees us.
We easily forget our beloved status before God and devolve into debates about our relative status here. We argue about who is the greatest, who gets to do what, who gets which honors, etc. We debate about roles: why women can’t be priests, who is the head of the household, what leadership positions are open to whom, etc.
Setting aside our greatest dignity, we focus on lesser distinctions.
To be sure there are distinctions and offices, some (not all) of them 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).
Whatever our distinctions, even those from God Himself, they 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.”
Scripture says this 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. For example, there is of course male and female, but distinctions do not overrule our common, fundamental dignity: Child of God.
Do we really understand this? Too often, no. In an instant, we’re back to our debates about who is the greatest, who gets to do what, who is in charge, 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. I have sometimes used this idea when speaking to my own parishioners, saying, “For you I am your pastor, with you I am your brother, and from you I am your son.”
Distinctions should not be confused with dignity. Our greatest dignity, our greatest title, is something we all share, something given us by God not by man: “Child of God.” It is your greatest title.
I’ll conclude with this humorous story:
One day, a powerful and influential Cardinal Archbishop of a large city was in Jerusalem strolling with his priest secretary in the market. He came upon a vendor, who cried out, “You, sir! Come here and I’ll give you a fair deal!” The secretary, annoyed at the vendor’s use of the lesser title “sir” said to him, “Do you know who this is?” “No,” replied the vendor. The priest said, “This is His Eminence Cardinal Archbishop so-and-so.” “Really?” replied the vendor, “Well, I’ll still give you a fair deal!”
Our distinctions do not affect our fundamental dignity.
Here is how God sees us: