25th Sunday of Ordinary Time/ Trinity 16.
The image of Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying to his followers, “whoever receives a little child in my name receives me” will today seem very strange. Jesus however was teaching his disciples to have self awareness by adopting a spirit of humility and transparency. These are not ideas that are held in high regard in today’s world. The wisdom of this age is about self, human rights and justice; it is about making the most of ourselves, of being successful, and not becoming victims. Above all to be admiring of celebrities who have made a name for themselves and a lot of money. But the heart of the spiritual teaching of Jesus Christ is warning against following these false trails. That is why he uses the image of a child without status, to make a point about uncomplicated behaviour, not becoming overlaid with the tangled web of devious adult actions. William Law, the Non-Juror who died in 1761, in his classic book “A call to the devout and holy life” believed humility and innocence were rarely understood because they are not, as some think, about weakness or having a low opinion of ourselves but having a “true and just sense of self” which then maintains a reasonable self consciousness and a sense of responsibility for our actions, which William Law believed was a serious discipline for Christians.
Mastering the self by the discipline of the heart and soul is the lesson Jesus must expound. We read how his disciples have recently witnessed some of the most important landmark events in his mission. They saw him treating people with compassion; they had been present at the feeding of the crowds with simple supplies provided by another small child. They had witnessed the transfigured glory on a high mountain. Now they were beginning the journey towards the Lord’s trial and suffering, but the disciples are still seeing things from a very human point of view and beginning to quarrel about who should be the leader. The Lord must turn around their thinking. He was not opposed to achievement or honour but about the way such things were seized. The only way to work together was not use the way of status, manipulation and rivalry, but to put the other person first by building the rule of purity in the heart. Therefore he said, echoing the Sermon on the Mount themes, “The first shall be last”.
This mind of Jesus would be unheard of in the present self-centred culture in which the most radical agendas are organising for power and status. G.K. Chesterton believed a society like that is “going to the dogs” because in tearing down the wisdom of the centuries, it ends without a firm grasp of what is meant by human identity. Without that knowledge, and the vacuum created, the result is more and more fear and anxiety among the population. Society becomes a house built with shoddy materials and on poor foundations. It is quite certain that the kingdom teaching of Jesus can have nothing to do with today’s social engineering which is reaping such a harvest of chaos and confusion.
The ethics of Jesus recognises an intrinsic disorder at the centre of human life which breeds delusion, envy, manipulation, lies and a whole gambit of atrocities that are now breeding sociopathic behaviour at a fast rate and dominating our lives. It is precisely this confusing culture of a runaway self that Our Lord came to trample down. It can only be done by an active and disciplined struggle of the will at the centre of each person. He said “blessed are those who know that they are spiritually poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The culture has abandoned this Kingdom thinking believing that legislation can be cobbled together to make sure this offence or that crime can never happen again. Will they never learn that no system however well intentioned and exulted can ever overcome regenerate human behaviour.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal