Proper 21, Year B
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 21
I blogged a little last week about how our romantic views of childhood can sometimes distort our reading of biblical texts involving children. I don't feel the need to repeat any of that this week, though, for a fairly simple reason:
There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel.
The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is mikros, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, my quick survey suggests that it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status -- widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them -- than it is for children. It is true now as it was then that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class parishes as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to brunch afterward.
So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children (as I have to admit I did until I took a closer look at it today)? Indeed, since the National Association of Episcopal Schools has designated the first Sunday in October as "Episcopal Schools Sunday," I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't even more sermons than usual this Sunday suggesting that the "little ones" here are students in private Episcopal schools -- some of which are quite diverse and do offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, but many of which include few or none of the "lowly ones" of whom Jesus speaks.
I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. In my experience, few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd ("He dresses like a gang member! Is he from around here?"). Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and in my pastoral experience, those who have most often suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.
Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable an adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry -- the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers -- come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences -- the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough -- and that we deserve it all.
Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins.
Personally, I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition: "remember that you will die." In essence, that's a distillation of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to do. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory. The letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be -- powerful enough to be invulnerable -- and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.
God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image revealed as fully as we can receive it in the life of a human being looks like -- if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like -- we can look to Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. By this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities -- a cup of water, a day's bread, a moment of compassion.
Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power -- the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe -- is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing -- the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace -- is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" -- the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches -- doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes -- until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us.
Thanks be to God!