In the Gospel today, the disciples are confused to hear Jesus talk about his impending passion, but they were too afraid to question him on that. They were not only frightened by the prospect of their Master being killed but also scared that Jesus would rebuke them for their lack of understanding or faith. Therefore, to distract themselves from these scary scenarios, they engaged themselves in an argument about who was the greatest. That way, they took their minds away from the critical issue at hand and drifted into self-absorption regarding earthly power and prestige.
Instead of preparing their minds for the mission to the Cross, Peter and the rest were busy jostling for who was the greatest on earth. Imagine Peter saying, “Hey…I am the rock upon which the Lord will build his church, I’m going to be the first pope.” Imagine Matthew saying: “Jesus came to my place for dinner, and I have a lot of management experience working in the tax office.” Imagine the sons of Zebedee (James and John) saying: “We belong to the inner circle and even our mum lobbied Jesus on our behalf.” We could also imagine Judas Iscariot saying: “Look, I am the treasurer, and without me, the organization struggles for finance.”
This is not the path to true greatness. Such a rat-race mentality can only be a recipe for backbiting. That is why the Second Reading sounds a warning that jealousy and ambition can only breed conflicts and all kinds of evil. On the contrary, staying focused on Jesus and relying on divine wisdom brings about peace, kindliness, empathy, and practical goodness. Whoever works for peace lays a foundation for holiness.
It is not too hard to fall into self-absorption, even amongst Christians. How many friendships have been shattered because one friend was unhappy that the other was outshining them? How many families have been destroyed because the spouses saw themselves as rivals instead of partners? And how many vocations to the priesthood or religious life have been ruined because someone was envious of another’s talents? All these can happen when we give into unnecessary self-absorption, which breeds pettiness and malice. Self-absorption can lead to alienation from God, especially when one is struggling with aspects of the Church’s doctrine. Self-absorption can also lead to spiritual apathy or even outright rebellion against the Church instead of asking questions. That is not the path to true greatness.
So, what is the path to true greatness? Jesus starts by declaring that anyone wishing to be on top must first be at the service of all; those will be exalted who humble themselves. Greatness in the eyes of God is measured by modesty and service to others as exemplified by Jesus. He is the Master who washed the feet of his followers, and the one who, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). The apostles, as future leaders of the Church, were expected to shun aspirations for earthly honour and focus their minds on serving the Lord and his people more faithfully. That is the path to true greatness!
Next, Jesus presents a child to the Twelve. The image of a child serves a twofold purpose: to show the apostles what their attitude should be towards God, and what it should be towards the people they meet. The surest path to true greatness is seeking to be more and more like Christ and the best way to become more and more like Christ is to come to him with the openness and unwavering trust of a child. Every child grows up learning the ways of the parents. He/she learns to eat, dress, speak, play, and even pray like the parents.
Little children have absolute trust in their parents, so much that when the parents, for instance, tell them that Santa Claus would be coming personally in the middle of the night to drop off the Christmas presents, they have no problem believing that. When a child is taken to a new place, he/she quickly embraces the new language and culture, unlike the adult who struggles and for a long time. Jesus wants us to come to him with such childlike trust and openness, and that way we become more and more like him, and that is the path to true greatness.
Secondly, the child represents the weak and vulnerable, the poor and helpless. To welcome them is to welcome the Lord because: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these little ones that you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus uses the image of a child to demonstrate the vast difference between the secular lust for power and prestige and his Father’s desire that we welcome and minister to the weak and vulnerable. Our Redeemer likens himself to those who are weak, needy, and childlike. Just as he placed his arms around that little child, the Lord wants us to embrace those in need of our help and protection.
So, are we ready to embrace Jesus today? That would be so easy if he came to us robed in the glory of his ascension, or even as a modest yet well-dressed rabbi. It would be easy to answer if Jesus came to us dressed elegantly like a political leader or movie star. But what if he came to us stinking poor, unkempt, or smelly? What if Jesus were an unborn baby? What if Jesus came to us on a rickety refugee boat fleeing from war and persecution? What if he were a frail elderly person, a beggar, a drug addict, or a troubled soul? Let everyone pause and consider these situations. How we treat such people shows whether we are on the path to true greatness or not.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, let us pray for the courage to embrace him in whatever manner he comes to us so that we may walk the path to true greatness. Amen!