“What were you arguing about on the way?” They were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. Because there are many instances in the Gospels where the disciples are discussing this matter, Jesus, as patient teacher, needs to correct an attitude of superiority prevailing among his followers. In this instance, as an example, he places a child in their midst telling them that they should become like the child. He then shows how dear the little one is by putting his arms around the child.
In our current political season we have myriad examples of candidates arguing among each other and in the public forum concerning who is the greatest. Our readings today give us an opportunity to reflect on the destructive nature of power seeking. The author of Wisdom, relating the musings of the wicked, says, “Let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.” The Gospel lesson is a fairly simple teaching that his disciples must learn a whole new way of acting, for genuine power resides in gentleness and patience. As believers we need only look around to find that many real leaders in our world lived as Jesus did by putting their arms around those in need. Mother Teresa served the poor and needy in Calcutta with a single-minded desire to comfort God’s little ones. Dorothy Day embraced the poor of this country during the middle part of the last century. Archbishop Romero of San Salvador lost his life because he defended the vulnerable people of his nation.
Jesus uses a little child as an example of how the disciples should be leading their lives and how they should be encouraging others to lead lives that follow the master. In Jesus’ context, the child was without rights, one totally vulnerable, one completely powerless. A description of the child’s situation occurs in today’s second reading. James talks about the wisdom from above. It is pure. It is peaceable, gentle, compliant and full of mercy. Jesus’ example of the child shows us adults a whole new way of living our lives. This new way of life has no place for arguments about who is the first, but only concern should be for God’s little ones.
Today’s Gospel reading begins with one of Jesus’ predictions of the passion. And, in the other two readings we have descriptions of the just, righteous person who endures persecution. In Jesus’s passion we see, once again, the pattern of the little child or the just one who is put upon by those seeking first places and power. His is a whole new way of living and dying for the sake of God’s little ones — for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.