In today’s Gospel Jesus embraces a child and presents him as a model for us. To understand what Jesus is telling us we must free ourselves from a modern misconception. It began back in the eighteenth century when the French philosopher Rousseau invented the myth of the noble savage. He speculated that in a natural state, man is innocent. His idea influences the way we look at children: they are naturally good unless society corrupts them.
That sentimental view, which seems self-evident to many people today, is foreign to Jesus’ thinking. The Bible does describe the initial innocence of our first parents, but after the fall assumes a deep flaw in our souls. Human corruption leads to the deluge, but when the waters subside, God seems almost resigned to our inability to reform: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:21) Jeremiah poignantly describes our bent nature: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (17:9) In today’s epistle, James speaks about how wars originates in the “passions which make war with your members.” (4:1) St. Paul analyzes our inner division (Rom 5-7), a reality Jesus himself amply recognizes. (Lk 11:13, Mk 7:21, etc.)
Christians call this inner division Original Sin. Excepting Jesus' mother, we have all inherited the condition. Such an inheritance can seem exceedingly unfair, like having parents who are diabetic. Notwithstanding, we have received some benefits to more than balance things off. Before we can appreciate them we must squarely face our predicament.
Back in the fifth century St. Jerome had a frightening dream. The great scholar dies and appears before the Lord who asks him to identify himself. He states, “I am a follower of Jesus.” But the Lord replies, “No, you are a follower a Cicero.” Without going into all the dream meant, suffice it to say we face a similar the danger: to die and only then discover we have been following not Jesus, but Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Let me give a common example. I have often run into people who have stopped going to Mass. When they recognize me as a priest, they will react defensively. I remember this guy reassuring me, “Father, I am just as good a Christian as those people who go to Mass every Sunday.”
My response: “Friend, you do not understand the most basic thing about Christianity. It was the Pharisees who thought they were good. The ones Jesus praised were the prostitutes and tax collectors - because they realized they were not good.” I hope no one comes to Mass to tell Jesus how wonderful they are. Just the opposite: we acknowledge that only by his grace do we have forgiveness and the possibility of doing a single right act.*
With that background perhaps we can begin to understand the “child” in today’s Gospel. Jesus put him in the midst of his disciples not because of some presumed open-heartedness. No, Jesus contrasts the child with the one who “wishes to be first.” (Mk 9:35) In those days a child was totally subject to his Father. He had no status on his own.
Fr. Mike Holland used to tell seminarians at the beginning of a summer, “Remember, you have no rights. According to canon law, a priest has rights, a lay person has rights, but you are seminarian. You have none.” The seminarians did not protest. They saw Fr. Mike’s smile, but more important they sensed his care for them. In Jesus’ day a child (even a grown up son) stood in that kind of relationship to his father.
Jesus places that child before us - not for the sake of a mythical (and self-exalting) innocence. Rather, he desires we acknowledge our true status before God - and each other.
*Our difficulty accepting this comes from confusing "nice" and "good." Lenin, Hitler, Mao came across as "nice" people, that is, pleasant and agreeable to many who met them. We need not be astonished that visitors to Moscow brought back glowing reports on Stalin as a gentle, fatherly figure. Behind our own benevolent masks, can we not recognize some of the same tendencies in our own hearts? Only a few have felt the full brunt of your peevishness (and mine) but what if we had a similar opportunity to give it free rein - and get away with it?
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