Commentary on Luke 9:46-50
Following on Jesus once again telling his disciples that he was going to be “handed over” to suffering and death, we were told in our previous reading that they did not understand what he meant. It did not make sense to them.
Now, almost as an indication of how far they were from Jesus’ thinking, they began arguing among themselves which one among them should be seen as the greatest. Why should they be arguing about this? Was it because, whatever difficulties they had in accepting what Jesus had said about his future, they were wondering what was going to happen after Jesus had been taken away from them? If they were to remain together as a group, which of them would be in charge?
Perhaps Peter was already beginning to think that he should be the one. Perhaps some of the others felt it should be one of them.
But Jesus, who, of course, was not present during these sensitive discussions, was well aware of what was going on. He took a child and put it in their midst. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives him who sent me. For the one that is least among you all is the greatest.”
It is interesting that the greatness is to be seen in the child rather than in the one who receives it. The child represents all who are vulnerable and weak and powerless. To “receive” such persons is to treat them with the utmost dignity and respect and to accept them and lift them up.
In Jesus’ eyes, such little people are truly great because, to those who have eyes to see, they are the ones in whom we can especially meet Jesus and love and serve him. St Francis of Assisi, who kissed the leper (a particularly daring thing to do in his time), or Mother Teresa, tenderly picking up a decaying, barely living body off the street knew this well. To find Jesus in such a person is to make direct contact with God himself.
Jesus himself will reach the peak of his own greatness when he hangs dying and helpless on the cross. This is the lesson the disciples will learn to see and accept in time. We have to keep working on it too because it does not come easily to any of us.
The second part of today’s gospel points to another area where the disciples have to change their outlook. John, the brother of James, who both come across in the Synoptics as somewhat hotheaded (they had the nickname “sons of thunder”), tells Jesus they saw someone driving out devils in Jesus’ name. They had told the man to stop because he was “not one of us”. (Was there an element of jealousy also? In Mark 9:14ff, we are told that the disciples failed to drive out an evil spirit from a boy.)
Here we have something of the arrogance of the insider, of the elitist. John and his companions felt that the exorcism of evil spirits in the name of Jesus was something only they were allowed to do. Jesus did not agree. “Leave him alone,” he told them. And he enunciates a principle for them to follow: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
It is a constant temptation among more devout religious people to set themselves apart from “the others”. It can happen to bishops or priests or religious. It can happen in a parish to members of the parish council or some parish group – a prayer group, charismatics, the liturgy committee or whatever.
We can find ourselves developing a two-tier community of “us” and “them”. We can find ourselves looking down on those who come in late for Mass and hang around the back door or who only come occasionally or maybe even only turn up at Christmas.
Even more, we can be tempted to set ourselves apart from non-Catholic and non-Christian groups. We can fail to see God working in all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, atheists, agnostics and people who apparently do not believe in anything.
Of course, as Christians, we do have a distinctive understanding of life and its meaning coming from the teaching and life of Jesus and it should not be compromised. But, at the same time, we do not have a monopoly of the truth. No one has. The full Truth is beyond all of us. We are all searching. Still less do we have a monopoly on good works. God can and does use any person to build the Kingdom. And it is our responsibility to work hand in hand with such people. Ultimately, our aim is not to promote our Church but God’s work and God’s plan for the whole world.