01 October 2007

Turn, go to the playground

Little Flower: Isa 66.10-14 and Matthew 18.1-4
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St.
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


First, we have the Kroger Child who starts screaming at the door, screams from the mangos and hot dog buns all the way through picnic supplies and dried pastas and on to organic juices, candy bars, and trashy gossip magazines at the register. Then we have the two little girls, five and seven, who sit quietly through the 7.30 Sunday Mass, run up to me immediately after, hug my legs, and thank me for being a priest. And then you have the hundreds of neo-natals in ICU’s across the country; the kids at Family Gateway and the Merilac Center w/o parents or homes; the fifty children on CBS’ latest “reality show,” living w/o adults in a “Lord of the Flies” scenario, complete with readily available tribal make-up and hundreds of cameras; we have the children in our lives, these here, those at home, in school, the ones we see only in pictures from our own kids. . .and then we have those who show us how to get into heaven. Jesus says to his disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps it is time we turned to the playground again.

You have to imagine the scene clearly. Jesus is praying quietly by himself. His disciples, the twelve and probably a few others, all grown men in their thirties and forties, approach Jesus expectantly. He opens his eyes, takes a deep breath, and waits for the question. And what cosmos-quaking question do these students of the Anointed Messiah ask their master? What is the nature of peace? Of mercy? How do we live abundantly in poverty? Hunger? No. They want to know who among them will be the greatest in heaven. Ah, it’s about ambition, about being the alpha-dog. You can almost feel the heat from Jesus’ embarrassment and perhaps just a degree or two of his anger. Jesus—no doubt thinking: how do I get through to these thick skulls I’ve chosen to be my apostles?—calls over a child and stands the child in the middle of the group. There’s a tense silence among the nipping canine-disciples, an expectant hush as they wait to hear what incredible nonsense Jesus will try to teach them this time; and Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I see dumbfounded stares, dropped jaws, disappointment, confusion, all flavored with a bit of frustration and anger. Children!?

Yes, children. Jesus sets a child among them and anoints the child as their exemplar. He puts two conditions on entering heaven in this passage: 1) we must turn and 2) we must become like children. Turning makes perfect sense b/c as adults we would have to make radical changes, turn-a-bouts, in order to arrive back at where we started—innocence, humility, a sense of wonder. Turning is conversion, flipping over, stopping and going in reverse, facing the other direction. What does it mean for us to become like children? No doubt Jesus is pointing out the desirable qualities of a first-century Jewish child. Respect, humility, willingness to serve, eagerness to learn, docility in obedience—all of the qualities we would associate with “good kids.” He is also lifting up in this child those qualities that we sometime leave behind as adults: imagination, wonder, a perfect sense of awe, that ability and willingness to look at the world and live wholeheartedly in joy, overflowing gladness and a complete lack of pretension.

Jesus is telling us that we must become a particular kind of child. We must become small, little; without worldly ambitions, without aggressive pretense or a need for secular approval. He is telling us that we must become who we truly are already: creatures of a Creator, children of the Father. We are to be students, apprentices of charity and grace, interns of eternity. As adults of the twenty-first century, we must become the children of the first. If we would be the greatest, we must be who we truly are: the least. To do this we must turn and turn and turn. Always turning back to our heavenly Father. What else can His favorites do?

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