He took a child, and put him in the midst of them.
Bishop Davies, sometime bishop of Dallas and the first bishop of Ft. Worth, used to irritate me by calling me ‘his hippie priest’. Alas, he knew me when I was a teenager. In point of fact I never was very good at being a hippie; I asked too many questions. But I have wondered if the apostles felt that way when the New Testament points out every single example of their stupidity, their every failure to get it about it at Jesus, and their every betrayal and abandonment of Jesus.
Eventually these guys got it. But when we meet them in the Gospel this Sunday they are still trying to change the subject: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” – blah, blah, blah, what they want to know is ‘who is the greatest”. We also like to change the subject and we are also very interested in ‘who is the greatest”.
It is not simply that Jesus talks about the Cross and they talk about the opposite of the Cross. It is that Jesus teaches them the truth by taking a child and putting him in the midst of them. Later Jesus will say that it is to children that the kingdom of God belongs) but in this passage the key point about the child is that in that time and place a child had absolutely no status whatsoever. A child was totally dependent on others and in this sense powerless. If you wanted to select a person of the least importance then a child was a good choice. Jesus puts the unimportant child in the center of the room. He gives the child the most important place and then takes the child in his arms. The one of no status is given the position of greatest honor. The last is placed first. It is in receiving such a person notwithstanding his total lack of standing or status or importance, that a follower of Christ will receive God the Father. Jesus turns their whole way of looking at themselves and others completely upside down.
We would be right to see an echo of Jesus’ own childhood in this gesture. For all the attention we give the holy Child at Christmas, no one noticed the birth of this child, when it happened. Now we think not only that everyone knows about Jesus but everyone is an expert on him. But it was not so in his earthly life. He was an unknown man, the son of a carpenter’s wife that had never graduated from any school of rabbinical learning; He did not move in the world of political influence or of fashionable thought. He had of course something of a following among the crowd but they were nobodies and so was he. St. Paul says of the apostles that they are ‘known and unknown’ and the same is true of Jesus. “As I know the Father and the Father knows me.” He who to the world’s eyes seemed friendless, without connections, without honor, powerless, had been from all eternity the unique object of the Father’s love. “no man knows the Son but the Father; no one knows the Father but the Son”.
This is the lesson Jesus taught that day and this is the lesson that the Apostles eventually learned. His Church during the first century and beyond was dismissed in the world’s eyes by the humble origin and insignificant status of its adherents. The met in graveyards and the stories told them were the kind of stories the fashionable world only repeats about people they have never met in real life. “Not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble’ St. Paul says of the Church. They were unknown yet known – unknown to men, known to God.
The polls and pundits have pronounced that we are now living in a post-Christian world and that has many Christians worried, even frantic. But we are what we have always been ‘unknown, and yet well known; dying, and behold we live; punished, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. Because it not how many people you know, how many people know you but God knowing you.