Homily for Sept. 26th, 2016: Luke 9:46-50.
“An argument arose among them about which of them was the greatest.” So what else is new? we ask. The argument continued at the Last Supper (cf. Lk. 22:24). It continues today: we clergy are especially susceptible. Even canonized saints have engaged in the contest for position and honor. We would have celebrated one of them yesterday, had it not been a Sunday: St. Vincent de Paul. He decided to be a priest, even managing to get himself ordained several years before the minimum age, because he thought priesthood was a career, rather than a service. Only years later did he come to realize his error, acknowledging it with the words: “If I had known what priesthood was all about, as I have come to know since, I would rather have tilled the soil than engage in such an awesome state of life.” In an attempt to put a damper on this contest about greatness, Pope Francis has put at least a temporary stop on the granting to priests of the honorific title of “Monsignor.”
Our gospel reading makes it clear that Jesus didn’t overhear what his friends were arguing about. He didn’t need to. He could read people’s thoughts. This is one of a number of occasions in the gospels when he did so.
Jesus responds to the argument about greatness by calling a young child to his side. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,” he tells his disciples. “And whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest.” We grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ action and words only when we know that he lived in a society which was anything but child-centered. In Jesus’ world children, like women, were supposed to be seen and not heard.
When I entered seminary just over 68 years ago, we newcomers were given a book of “Principles,” as they were called, to guide our lives. One of them went like this: “Choose for yourself the lowest place, not because of modesty, but because it is most fit for you. There is always someone whose burden is heavier than yours. Find him out, and if you can, help him.”
I’ve never forgotten that. Nor should you.