September 20, 2009
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wis 2:12, 17-20
The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.
Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8
R. (6b)The Lord upholds my life.
O God, by your name save me,
and by your might defend my cause.
O God, hear my prayer;
hearken to the words of my mouth.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
For the haughty men have risen up against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they set not God before their eyes.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord sustains my life.
Freely will I offer you sacrifice;
I will praise your name, O LORD, for its goodness.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
I had been to a house to visit. Normally we visited houses in the evening and that is the perfect time for all to invite a priest, chat, then bless the house and return back to rectory. At times, we would take a little more time when there were problems in some families and we would struggle to finish the number of houses allotted to us. Well, it happened once, when I was very late and there was only one house yet to visit. I was late and I felt a little hesitant to enter a house. When I knocked the door softly, the woman opened the door, and she said, Father Welcome, my little son has just gone to bed and he is praying. I was curious how he was praying, so I asked the mother to let me see the boy praying. I listened to him praying in a wonderful way that was impressive. He began praying, Father, take care of my Dad, Mom, my teacher, my friends, and also take care of Jane, who is ill. Dear Heavenly Father please take care of yourself, because if something happens you we are all gone. Amen.
That was really great a prayer. Even after almost 5 years I remember the prayers of this little lad. God bless him.
In today’s gospel, Jesus places a child in the midst of his disciples as an example. In the gospel, the disciples have been arguing. They have been arguing about which of them the greatest is. This is a popular argument among adults. It continues on, down to our own day. We adults invest ourselves heavily in this argument. Usually it is not so overt as it is with these disciples. The argument is generally conducted indirectly, communicated through symbols such as who has the biggest income, the fanciest car, the largest house. Like these disciples of Jesus, today’s adults are concerned with who is the greatest.
These disciples are straightforward enough to discuss it directly as they walk together down the road. Still they are ashamed when Jesus asks what they were arguing about. They fall silent, uncharacteristically silent, and they do not tell him. He knows what’s going on, however.
Jesus equates greatness with servant-hood, a startling notion both then and now. He also presents them with a child, just in from the playground, as a symbol, an example. He asserts that welcoming such a child amounts to welcoming him and the Father in heaven who sent him.
The world in which Jesus lives does not value children highly. To compare the heavenly Father with a kid just in from the playground upsets the ordinary prejudices of people in that world.
We live in a world where all too often children are not valued highly. They may be valued in your family and mine, but stark statistics are available about children abused, malnourished, uneducated, imprisoned, so that we cannot claim that our world today is uniformly safe for children.
In the face of this world, the church acts in obedience to Jesus in welcoming children, and this child in particular, and announcing her as God’s child, as a royal person, an heir to the kingdom of heaven, a co-heir with Christ himself.
The church acts in obedience to Jesus in welcoming children, not only on the day of their Baptism, but whenever these children come forward to the Lord’s Supper as equal participants with others who are baptized.
The church welcomes children, not only when sacraments are celebrated, but by recognizing their worth in numerous ways in the life of congregations by nurturing them, helping them fulfill their ministries, and welcoming the gifts they bring which enrich us all.
The church welcomes children who come to us in special need, who lack food, or counsel, or shelter, children who in a world they find cruel long for an advocate and protector, and receive what they need through ministries offered by Christian groups and through other efforts promoted by Christian people.
To welcome one such child in the name of Jesus is to welcome Jesus himself, and it is to welcome the Father who sent him. Thus a blessing is attached to the welcoming of children that is done in Christ’s name.
This blessing enriches Christian communities and individuals, and it rests especially upon parents and other family members who welcome and keep welcoming the children in their midst for many reasons perhaps, but certainly in the name of Jesus.
The blessing falls upon us when we keep welcoming the children not only because it may be natural or expected or decent to do so, but finally because there is something sacred about our doing this. Blessed are those who in the midst of the challenges of caring for children of any sort can recognize the sacredness of doing so and always keep that sacredness in view.
So children and their play can be a reminder to the rest of us that eternity beckons us here in the midst of time. For this reason, Jesus places in the midst of his disciples a child fresh from the playground to remind them to seek the eternal in the world of time, to play and to contemplate which are much the same thing–because play and contemplation are worthy in themselves; they are their own reward. The play of children is not merely preparation for life’s practicalities; it is a reminder and symbol of our overarching purpose in this age and the age to come, which is the contemplation of God.
After we were born our parents found days and months of sheer delight as they cuddled us, held us, played with us and watched us become little persons. Each boasted of the characteristics they saw in us that they were sure came from their own genes. In generous moments they gave attribution to the other parent or the other parent’s family.
It was not long, however, that our parents had to begin dealing with something within us that I can only describe as “The Imperial Self.” We all had one, you know – and still do! And what is amazing is how soon that Imperial Self asserts itself after we’ve been given life. The darling, lovable baby soon strives to become a self-willed tyrant. In that emergence the words “I”, “me”, and “mine” become no longer descriptive, they become imperious. Our parents soon became more willing to break the wills of newly born wild horses than they were in trying to put bit and bridle on our willful little egos.
Then came middle and later childhood. Once again our parents were given days and years of delight, happiness, and exchanged love. Ah, those were the days! But then came the teen years. I wish I could ignore even mentioning the teenage years. But, of course, I can’t. In those years in which our Imperial Self acquired muscle, muscle along with learned techniques to exert power and control. Emotional blackmail was employed; appeals to what “everybody else” is thinking, saying or doing were brought to bear. Threats of leaving were issued. Each one of us developed our own arsenal of weapons to be deployed by the EGO within us.
And the result? Well, mixed of course.
Some of us still carry scars from those days. Some of our parents never recovered from the wounds. Others, however, suffered little. Still other families were relatively undamaged. In our teen years many if not most of us learned good lessons and have long since gone on to having wonderful, loving relationships with our parents and siblings. We’ve learned how to manage and contain our Imperial Selves as well as forever junking those emotional weapons of mass destruction that we employed back then. Still, there are those of us who are thirty, forty, and fifty-year-old teenagers. There are those of us who are remain, decades later, tyrannical infants who must win at all costs.
Winning and being a winner are deeply imbedded in our culture; they are a national pastime. All one need do is observe our obsession with media superstars and sports heroes. Getting all “A’s” while we are in school becomes another obsession for us. Our parents are often our worst enemies in this regard. We strive to win at all costs.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we should not pursue excellence, that we should not develop our talents, and not use our talents and abilities to strive to be highest and best that we can be. That sort of end goal is laudable and good. It is the means to that end that can devastate those around us and ruin our own souls.
Self-concern has its moments and aspects of legitimacy. But self-assertion that seeks to dominate and control others, to employ techniques to coercion and emotional blackmail quickly takes us into demeaning and degrading others. Whoever said that one ascends a ladder by pushing others down to the lower rungs? Does one better one’s self by putting down others? The politics of personal destruction only lead to our own self-destruction. The will to dominate and control others, even God, is the subject of today’s Gospel account. As a priest I’ve encountered more than a few souls who are angry at God because He didn’t do as they expected, because He didn’t dance to their tune.
One of the saddest observations I have when looking out at our surrounding culture is to see how many people are degrading and demeaning the goodness and holiness found in others. The first reading in today’s Mass, taken from the book of Wisdom, speaks in part to that. But we should pay attention to the entire passage. The complete reading is as follows. Note how aptly it describes the attitudes of so many in today’s world.
“Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are real, and use the freshness of creation avidly. Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by; let us crown ourselves with rosebuds ere they wither.
Let no meadow be free from our wantonness; everywhere let us leave tokens of our rejoicing, for this our portion is, and this our lot. Let us oppress the needy just man; let us neither spare the widow nor revere the old man for his hair grown white with time. But let our strength be our norm of justice; for weakness proves itself useless. Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD.
To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.” These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.
For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it. Wisdom 2:6-24
A second point I would like to consider with you. It has to do with being child-like. I suspect many people are thrown off by a misinterpretation of what Jesus means when He asks us to be as little children. He is not asking us to be childish. Nor is He asking us to be passive-dependent persons, or mindless, unthinking robots who have no initiative and are not self-actuating.
What He is asking us to be is “teachable”, to stop thinking we know everything there is to know about religion, God, the Church, the bible and all of the other things of God. Just because we completed our religious education programs when we were young, and just because we have received the Sacrament of Confirmation, doesn’t mean we’ve nothing more to learn about what God wants of us. People have gone on to earn doctorate degrees in theology still lose their souls! People who graduated from our nation’s finest Business Schools have gone on to pillage the coffers of our major corporations and empty out the retirement accounts of countless retirees who gave their lives in working for those corporations. Knowledge may give us some power, but knowledge by itself cannot save us.
It is sometimes said that you cannot be a good businessman or businesswoman and be an observant Christian. I think that in order to succeed in business you should put Christian principles into practice. Stop and think about it. Are not those businesses that best serve their customers the most successful businesses? Two family members who belonged to Reliance family have benefited from that principle to the extent that each one of them today is a billionaire! Well it is said that they studied in Christian Schools? Jesus’ admonition: “If anyone wants to be first he must be the servant of all” seems to make practical sense to me. Having served the interests of Larson and Turbo Corporation as well as many business enterprises are spectacular successes starting from scratches, collecting scraps to sell and begin their business, and today they are multinational giants. And those businesses that have not delivered quality service have either failed or are about to fail. Self-aggrandizement at the expense of exploiting, demeaning and degrading others is not the road to success in this life or the next. It is said that Bill Gates the richest man on this planet gets inspiration from his dear wife who is a devout Catholic. But those who are closed to learning what Wisdom, Truth and the Word of God reveal to them are likewise on the road to failure.
Are you willing to take the road less traveled?