You know the story, you say to yourself I don’t like this woman or this man. There. I’ve said it. I’ve put it out in the open. You know the sort of person, she for arguments sake is that person. You know who she is. She gets up at 5: 00 a.m. each morning for Pilates class and then makes her children pancakes with maple syrup and also scrambled eggs for breakfast before she drives them to school in her hybrid SUV with probably a sticker saying “My child is an honour roll student at …… or some such sticker advertising the wonderful school her children go to. Then, in her purple linen outfit that is always pressed, she volunteers in the classroom before she heads to work.
She volunteers each week at the homeless shelter. Her house is always clean. Her yard is perfectly manicured. Her roses do not have fungus. She knits blankets for kids at the children’s hospital. The kids in the neighbourhood hang out at her house because her kids are cool and have all the right toys and video games. They are polite. Their shirts are tucked in. She cooks a balanced meal each night, which the family eats together before she heads out to her community board meetings.
I don’t like her. Do you know why? Because I am not her. My clothes look wrinkled the moment I put them on even though I ironed them with all the care the army taught me during training years ago. I exercise under duress and only because I know it is good for me. And the “bread of idleness”? It is one of my favourite foods. I do try my best to help my wife provide for our future comfort, but sometimes we eat sausages as our main meal or heat up some pre-prepared meal from the supermarket for dinner.
This women may open her mouth with wisdom, but I often open my mouth with ramblings or even complaints or whining. I don’t like her because I am afraid. Afraid I can’t measure up. Afraid people will find out I’m a fraud. And so, without knowing this woman at all, I dismiss her. I keep her at arm’s length, hoping that nobody will notice how much I am not like her even though I am supposed to be the super duper ‘house husband’.
We almost can’t help it, can we? When given the opportunity to revel in God’s goodness, we still yearn for status and standing. We seek ways to improve our lot at the expense of others, to find a way to cut in when we are lining up, to be recognised for how great we really are. We want to be better than this woman I wrote about above. You know, we can’t seem to help it and neither could the disciples. In Mark, the disciples jockey for position in Jesus’ heavenly kingdom, entirely missing that the reign of Jesus does not follow the logics of our political systems. Condemning them even further is the wider context of their disputations. Jesus has just told them that his reign will begin, not with victory or acclamation, but with the pain and shame of death on a cross. The disciples, however, don’t understand Jesus.
How could they? How can anyone defeat the fear and the forces of death and be raised again? Who can resist the rules of a world that too often drives us toward destruction? In the midst of their confusion and fear, the disciples resort to an apostolic ranking system as useful as preseason sports predictions.
“Do you want to be great?” Jesus asks. Then be like this child. Here, ancient ideas of childhood must be at the forefront of our interpretation. Jesus’ message is not saccharine. He is not pointing to a child’s presumed innocence or even how sweet a precious child can be. In the ancient world, children were a gift but also a burden. They needed to be fed but could scarcely work for their sustenance. Widows and children together represent those most exposed and susceptible to the vicissitudes of ancient life.
Do you want to be great? Then be a like child. Be vulnerable. Maybe even be a burden or be on the margins of this world. Maybe we need to put ourselves out there for one another, not worrying about our place or whether someone might share the resources we think are ours. Maybe we need to know that our hospitality will probably be abused. We will get hurt in the process, and we will face many situations in which we will be tempted to abandon our caring and welcoming attitude.
But no amount of power or self-preservation will bring the healing that we seek. Only the life-giving hospitality of Jesus can do that. Only our acceptance that all are important in God’s eyes and we are called to act in a way that exemplifies this will bring fulfilment. I am called to accept that the woman whose life style I found difficult to accept, is also one of God’s beloved.