Being identified with a role in relation to someone else is something we all encounter: it’s probably most common to parents when their children start school – you’re not John or Cathy, but ‘Billy’s parents’ or Mary’s Mom or Dad ; an experience where we are identified in relation to another person or group; it happens as we grow and go to school, or work, or are involved in different social activities – you’re John’s brother or Mary’s sister; Bill’s grandmother – Tom’s wife; Sally’s husband….and there is something in our human nature that sometimes gets concerned….a kind of fear that we have lost our own identity; and in our society that fear is fanned into a flame; don’t lose your individuality – your self; being identified in relation to the other means taking a secondary place, and that’s somehow not right….put yourself first;
But over time, particularly as we look through the lens of our Catholic faith, we can see that this identification in relation to another is not really a loss, but an expanded identity; a bigger reality: it’s a reminder of a role; a connection to another; a life of service in love that we have in relation to others, to the greater whole. Even in a name like Father Joe or Deacon Bob; if we grasp these “titles “as a means of gathering respect or prestige that’s wrong. But when anyone calls us Father, or Deacon , it reminds us of our promise to serve God and others with our lives; that it is a means of holding ourselves to account that we are servants to God and His people; that this is not about power or prestige.
In today’s Gospel, we hear how the apostles were arguing amongst themselves who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; maybe we can imagine how the argument or dispute plays itself out….’I was the first one called, so I will be first’…”I had influence over the lives of hundreds of taxpayers, so my talents will put me over others’…’I’m his favorite – he called me the beloved disciple, so if I’m beloved, I’m definitely going to be first’…’ our Mom asked him to put us at his right and left hand so we’ll obviously be at the top’……a completely disordered way of looking at the Kingdom; and at some level, the apostles know this type of thinking is inherently wrong, because they talk amongst themselves; they don’t want Jesus to hear them…in fact, when they get to Capernaum he says to them, ‘what were you arguing about?’…he knows they were arguing and knows what they were arguing about, but he gives them an opportunity to recognize how wrong their argument was in the first place…..obviously they know there’s something wrong with their thinking because even when he asks what they were arguing about, they remain silent; they’re ashamed; they’re embarrassed; they realize they were again thinking, not as God thinks, but as humans think.
The ultimate point of their argument is really rather silly; they argue who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of God, when the answer is really self-evident: the greatest in the Kingdom of God is God…..there is only God in union with His children; there is no second best: but this desire to be the greatest goes right back to the early stories of creation, to the fall of Satan in his sin of pride, wanting to be the greatest in heaven.
Perhaps they are afraid of losing their self identity in the kingdom, that somehow their self identity is what gives them influence and power. But Jesus teaches that this is a false sense of identity – that the truest expression of who we are is in our relationship to God and others: And when we start to grasp to what gives us worldly influence and power, we lose connection with our true identities, the identities we have as Sons and daughters of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, as children of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus drives this point home to the apostles at the house in Capernaum by placing a child in their midst and he tells them (and us) to accept the child in His name. This story is about our relationship with others for the love of God. Jesus uses the harsh reality of first century Palestine; we have a difficult time understanding this reality in our church which places a high value on children and their care and nurturing.
But children in this culture, in the eyes of the world, had no status: in fact, some slaves, depending on their position in their master’s house, were more highly valued. Children had no influence, no authority, no position, no prestige; so when one welcomed these ‘little ones’ they were welcoming someone who had nothing of material gain, nothing of influence or privilege, who brought nothing of worldly value into the relationship. They could only bring themselves – their true selves; they were welcomed simply for who they were; simply because they were children of God.
And Jesus teaches the apostles that when one welcomes one of these little ones in His name, they are welcoming Jesus, and in turn welcoming God .
To receive them for any other reason is to substitute that other reason for God;
To welcome someone simply because of what they can do for me is to put that false self identity ahead of God.
This is at the very heart of Jesus teaching, and the Church’s teaching on our relationships with others, but in particular, our relation to the poor; whether their poverty be material or spiritual: that we welcome and serve the ‘lowly –or children – or the littlest in the Kingdom’ precisely because they have nothing worldly to offer; we accept them solely for Christ’s love.
It is those with nothing and those who are attached to nothing other than their identity as children of God who are first in the Kingdom; in their love for God they serve God and others because that is who they are; their identity is in their relationship with God;
It is in this role, then, that we can really see the value and importance of our own roles in service to each other. Rather than thinking as the world thinks, that we lose our own identity when we’re introduced as ‘so-and-so’s parent or child or friend’, we can see this as an identification of our giving of ourselves to each other; that it is not a negative- it’s a real positive – something to celebrate; imagine, if people identified us as ‘oh, there’s Joe or Sue; they’re Jesus’ friend or they’re God’s son or daughter’: would we be so insistent as to say ‘no I’m not – I’m my own man or my own women? As Catholics of course, the answer to that is obvious. Would we grasp that identity as a means of holding power over others; or would we accept it as the truth that all we have comes from God and we simply give it back to the One who gave it to us in the first place?
So perhaps in the week ahead, we can set a goal for ourselves to be welcoming as Jesus tells us, to someone specifically because they can not offer us anything in return; to see in these ‘little ones’ Jesus Himself; and reflect on surrendering our own individual ‘identities’ to truly become brothers and sisters of, and in, Christ.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever