In my class on Christian marriage, when we are discussing choosing a spouse, I always encourage them to consider how a prospective spouse treats those with little social power. How does he treat the server at a restaurant or the cashier at the checkout counter? How respectful is she to a homeless person or a burdened rider on a bus? I explain that not only does such behavior tell you a great deal about the character of a prospective spouse; if the conduct is poor, be assured that in your marriage you will be subject to the same sort of treatment.
Back in the day when I taught at a seminary, I used a similar strategy before voting on candidates for priesthood. I would go to the janitor (call him Jack), who had significant mental challenges, and ask him what he thought of each of these seminarians. Jack did not know anything about theology, but he knew which seminarians were kind and respectful to him and which were dismissive. (He also had spot-on assessments of the faculty.)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a second prediction of the Passion. They just could not wrap their heads around it and were unnerved by the prospect: “But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” And they really did not get it, for along the way they were discussing who among them was the greatest. Jesus took a child and, embracing him, said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”
Children are often used as descriptors and metaphors. To be childish is to be immature, even petty. To be childlike is to be filled with wonder, innocence and openness. Jesus did not mean either of these. In the ancient world a child was a social nonperson, without legal rights or social status. The idea of receiving a child with the dignity and value of the Lord himself is profound. Jesus’ comment says volumes about the inherent worth of every soul. It underscores the truth that we are all children of God and are invited to be sisters and brothers of the Lord. To receive a child as though he or she were Christ is intimately related to the Passion; for treating a social nonperson with respect requires renunciation of the grasping self that views others only with regard to one’s own interests.
Consider the contrast between the grasping self and the child-embracing self as this is reflected in the meditation on the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. One is to meditate on the rule of Lucifer and the rule of Christ, what each looks like and the lifestyle each implies. Ignatius describes Lucifer’s standard as coveting riches, seeking empty honors and succumbing to pride. In contrast, the standard of Christ is nongrasping humility.
In today’s first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, the very presence of the righteous one, the one who lives by the standard of God, upsets those who reject true wisdom. They want to get rid of him. Their standard is announced in the verse just before this reading: “Let our strength be our norm of righteousness, for weakness proves itself useless” (2:11). The second reading from James aligns perfectly here: “Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits.”
The whole Letter of James works like a wisdom document, one that contrasts the contentious spirit of false wisdom with the spirit of the Lord. James pleads for a church where members scrutinize their passions (1:14-15), are generous (1:17), listen to and are patient with each other (1:19), show no partiality between rich and poor (2:1-9) and see their faith as an engagement in service (2:12-26). This is what true wisdom looks like.
Imagine the Last Judgment as a courtroom trial: We stand before God the judge, who leans over to the humble Jacks of the world and asks, “So Jack, what do you think?”