Text in Context

(Homily for Twenty-Fifth Ordinary Sunday, Year B)

Children have a special place in the Gospels. In spite of his own tiredness (and his over-protective lieutenants) Jesus takes time to bless them. He requires us to become like them if we are to enter heaven. And today, he holds a child in his arms and tells his disciples that by embracing such a child, they are actually embracing him.

What does all this fuss about children really mean? This summer, while on vacation, I listened to a homily about the importance of becoming like children. The young priest was probably only a couple years out of the seminary and he celebrated the Mass beautifully. He spoke about the qualities of a child: unself-conscious, innocent, eager, quick to forgive & forget, affectionate, tolerant, etc. It was lovely, but unfortunately missed Jesus’ point. I wondered to myself whether the seminary was teaching students to read the text in its context.

Before attempting to place today’s text (about receiving the little child) into its context, let me give a contemporary illustration of the importance of the principle. A friend of mine had to give a deposition in a clergy sex abuse case. My friend is a no nonsense guy who early on recognized the seriousness of this matter.* He saw the harm done to victims and spent many hours ministering to them and their families, as well as doing what he could to protect other children. None of that mattered to the lawyer who questioned him. He possessed a small stack of documents from the 80's, some of them scribbled notes, by which he attempted to prove my friend’s complicity. The lawyer had a few texts, but cared nothing for the context. As my friend said, “he had no interest in the truth, only in how to get leverage for his lawsuit.”

Granted, a trial lawyer is an extreme case. However, we can also commit the error of ignoring a statement’s context. It may not be for any sinister motive, but simply because we have a pre-determined conclusion, given to us by our culture. That is particularly the case in today's Gospel since our culture has notions about children which are relatively new and quite foreign to the mentality of first century Palestine.**

To understand the difference we need to look at the context in which Jesus presented that child to his disciples. Jesus had just spoken about the humiliating death he would soon face. Then, in a gross (but not untypical) case of male obtuseness, the disciples started jockeying for position. They started telling each other about their personal accomplishment. Maybe the conversation went something like this:

--I am not bragging (the credit goes to God) but I did heal five people last week.

--Well, I brought in forty denarii in donations. Get realistic, guys, can't do anything without money.

--Just recently I was talking to some folks in Jerusalem, real movers and shakers. We are going to need them on our side.

--Oh, I’ve been working so hard lately I can barely move, but let me tell you about it...

--What a crowd turned out for the talk I gave! Made some converts to our cause.

--If someone listened to my suggestion, we wouldn't be in this mess.

In the context of that kind of discussion, Jesus brought forward a child. It was like holding a freshly hatched chick up to strutting roosters. Why is the master interested in something so paltry when he has moi myself right in front of him? The apostle’s wanted others to think they were “somebody.” Jesus presented them with one who in that culture was a “nobody.” A child’s opinion counted for nothing. He was supposed to keep quiet. He had no “rights.” He was not “his own person” – he belonged to his father. In Jesus’ time, they had no romantic notions about a child being “innocent.” Rather they believed a child needed regular correction and discipline.

When Jesus said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me,” he was once again identifying himself with the bottom rung of society. And telling his disciples to do the same.

************

*As a point of comparison, consider the Kiwanians and their "willful ignorance of long term, merciless and well known, child abuse that occurred at the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch." Like the Kiwanians, many Church officials responded abysmally. Against such a background, my friend's integrity and good sense stands out.

**Our modern sentimental view of children, as expressed by the young homilist, has more to do with the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau than with the Gospel. Rosseau developed the idea of the noble savage who, unless corrupted by civilization, lives in a state of innocence. His denial of original sin has led to a sentimentalizing of children by adults. At the same time, pardoxically, we have adopted a contraceptive mentality which makes us less than eager to welcome real children. Our Gospel today offers an opportunity (either in the homily or bulletin) to encourage those valient couples who have resisted the contraceptive mentality:

This Sunday Jesus tells us, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.” Before giving the homily proper, I want to thank the parents here who have opened themselves to the gift of a child. Perhaps the "gift" came at a time when you did not expect - or under difficult circumstances. Still, you accepted that child as from God. In the name of Jesus I thank you for your generosity.

Final Version

Versión Castellana

From Archives (Homilies for 25th Sunday, Year B):

2012: We Are Little People
2009: The Antidote for Envy
2006: The Desire for Wealth
2003: Text in Context
2000: He Placed a Child in Their Midst
1997: Twice as Many Things, Twice as Unhappy

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Ordination of Abel & death of his mom, Bequest from Steve Antonow, Mary's Family Medicine)

Announcements

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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From Des Moines Register - Planned Parenthood spared penalty by Iowa high court
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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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