HOMILY for 25th Sunday per annum (B)
It’s easy for us to read today’s Gospel of St Mark and immediately conflate it with St Matthew’s version of it, where Jesus says: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). But Jesus doesn’t say this today – not directly, anyway. In fact, St Mark’s version of this saying comes later on in his Gospel, in the next chapter, where Jesus says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15). So, today’s teaching isn’t especially about openness and humility to trust in God’s Word, although this is essential. Neither is it particularly about our greatness in heaven being derived from our smallness, humility, and powerlessness. Although this, too, is true, and is found in Christ’s teaching in today’s Gospel that anyone who would be “first” in the kingdom of heaven has to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:36).
But if we pay attention to today’s Gospel, what Jesus does is to hold up a child to his followers, and then, to identify himself with the child. Thus, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”. And if we’re to link this to St Matthew’s Gospel, we go straight to the Parable of the Last Judgement that’s found only in that Gospel. There, Jesus famously identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the needy. And is all this not what children, often, are? Needy? They need us to feed them, clothe them, pay attention to them. They need our care because they’re dependent on us. But most of all, they need our love.
So, greatness in God’s kingdom, and indeed, greatness on earth, if we come back to what the disciples were arguing about, is about charity. Greatness is about an open-hearted welcome to those who, like children, are vulnerable, powerless, dependent, and in need. And it is true that our society admires those individuals and organizations that strive for justice for the poor, needy, and powerless. But, again, let’s pay attention to the text of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t just call his followers to welcome the child. He calls us to welcome the child in his name. Which means that there is something distinctive about Christian charity. It’s not humanitarian social work, although on the surface it may look like it. Indeed, this is why Christians can collaborate in charitable and social justice work with all people of good will. However, Jesus adds another spiritual – one might even say, mystical – dimension to our physical acts of mercy and justice. Christ reminds us is that Christian charity – hence, our deeds of love – is rooted in the Incarnation.
This is to say that our service of the poor, our welcome of the weak, and our advocacy for the voiceless and vulnerable is an act of worship, of hospitality to the Word who became flesh and came to dwell among us. So, “whoever receives one such child in [Christ’s] name receives [him]”, and indeed, receives God, our heavenly Father. For in Christ, God became a Child, becoming dependent, powerless, and vulnerable. As such, God also became a servant because the Aramaic word for ‘child’ can also mean ‘servant’. Why does God do this? Because God is Love.
So, in his Incarnation, Christ becomes, firstly, a child, who is needy, naked, thirsty and hungry; who needs our care and attention; who needs our love. And at the end of his life, Jesus is the Needy One whom St Matthew’s parable speaks of in various guises. All those forms come together in Christ Crucified, where he is naked, thirsty, hungry, imprisoned, and a stranger. There, he shows us the depths of his love for sinful humanity, and, like a child, he thirsts for our love. God thirsts for your love.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta put it this way; it is God who speaks to us: “I thirst for you. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to Me. I thirst for you. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials. I thirst for you. You must never doubt My mercy, My acceptance of you, My desire to forgive, My longing to bless you and live My life in you. I thirst for you.”
So, Jesus thirsts for us to love him, and, ultimately, to trust him and go to him in faith, and to serve him in the poor and needy. He wants us, through material acts of love for our neighbour but also through spiritual acts of faith in God – which we often find more difficult – to say to him, the Child, what so many parents and grandparents say to their children, “I love you”, “I believe in you”. He wants us to receive him into our lives as we would a child. As every parent knows, children change our lives and turn them upside down, but for the better. So, too, with faith in Christ. Because if we love God and welcome him into our lives, then he dwells in us and transforms us with his grace, so that we can become one with him; we become One with Love itself. Now, that is greatness indeed!