Ministry and receiving the child

“They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mk 9:34-37)

In today’s Gospel reading, the apostles are discussing among themselves who is the greatest. It is interesting to me that the passage doesn’t say that each man speaks of himself as the greatest. Perhaps that is so, but when I look at the dynamics of groups, things generally look more complicated. Maybe one person seems to stand out as a special talent to everyone. Perhaps there are two different styles of ministry, and some apostles prefer one while others like the other. Or one apostle is thinking—that guy is going to be a spectacular minister and I won’t be capable of living up to it. My sense of the story is that Jesus is speaking to the apostles about evaluation more generally. But thinking that one is “better” than others, or “worse” than others, in some broad way, is not how Jesus thinks. It is not how Jesus loves.

A Jesuit friend of mine many years ago told me that when he was a scholastic, he learned that comparing one’s own spiritual life to another’s is always a place that the “evil spirit” gets into our lives. The same might be said for any other kinds of evaluations of the worth of self in comparison another. Of course, when we are interviewing someone for a job, we look for those who are most accomplished at the task, and some people are more talented than others with respect to particular activities. But this is entirely separable from asking, “Who is the greatest?,” as if there were some general way by which to evaluate being a worthwhile human being. That way of thinking ignores the tremendous diversity of gifts that human beings have, and the creative power of God to work through many different kinds of people. When I can be comfortable with the idea that I am not any better or worse than anyone else, and that there is no need to be better or worse than anyone else, that is true humility.

We receive children differently. We don’t look at a young child and ask, what have you accomplished in your life so far? Are you better than another child at building with Legos, or drawing, or running? (Or, to the extent that we do evaluate, this shows a very unhealthy aspect of our culture.) Instead, we delight in the child for his or her very being. Parents naturally love their children no matter what their gifts or shortcomings, simply because they are.

God also loves us this way and so asks us to show that same kind of unconditional love to others. More important than any other talent in ministry that might make us accomplished is how we receive others. There is probably nothing more painful than feeling rejected by one who has ministered to us, whose care is experienced as connected to God’s care for us. Likewise, being received and faithfully accompanied in times of hardship or struggle is a way that we experience God’s love concretely through others. Indeed, when we entrust ourselves in whatever way to others, we are going back to a childlike stance of trust and vulnerability, a stance that keeps us open to God in prayer and in  life.

Each day we can ask, how do we show others that they are loved without condition by the way that we treat them? It may not be so much a question of words as action and faithful presence. In our own diverse ministries, we can let those whom we serve know through our actions that they, like the child standing before Jesus, are good simply because they are. We can also take on this stance of being like a child for ourselves. We are loved not for our accomplishments, not even for our virtues, but because each one of us is a beloved child of God.