I remember watching one of my nieces early on at her soccer game. And this was the first soccer game that she’d ever played. That meant that she was maybe five years old, somewhere around that age. She had the classic, memorable first goal of her life. She kicked the soccer ball into the goal, not realizing it was on the opposite side of the field from the plan she should have been kicking into. But it was a moment of innocence. When it happened to her, she was happy, joyful, and unconcerned that it went into the wrong goal. I think at some point in our lives, and we’re like that. We’re innocent, we’re happy, and we’re not worried about which goal the ball even goes into.
But as we grow up, at some point in our lives, that shifts. We know which goal it needs to go into, and we will often get discouraged if we don’t score it. Or if we don’t win the game, or we aren’t the star of the team. It makes us sad. So even the Browns, losing last week, we get unfortunate. We get sad a lot here in Cleveland. It’s because of this whole notion of wanting to win and desiring to be the best. If we’re not winning, if we’re not the best, it causes sadness in us.
I think about the Gospel today. Jesus talks to the disciples, who are talking about who is the best and the greatest among themselves. It’s comical if you can imagine this and read between the lines. Jesus walks up to them, and he says, “Hey guys, what were you talking about?” Jesus knows what they were talking about. They are all dumbfounded, and they have to tell him, “Well, Lord, we were talking about who is the best. Was it me, or Peter, who was it?” That’s an embarrassing thing to talk about in front of the Lord, who is the Son of God. I think back to childhood, and I would invite you to think back to your childhood. Think of that time of innocence, the time when you were not worried about competing. The time that you weren’t worried about being the best, and the time that you weren’t disappointed if you weren’t the best. Or if you didn’t win. Was there a time in your life, where you were just happy to kick a ball through a goal, and you didn’t care which goal it was? I think it’s that mentality that Jesus is inviting us to when he pulls that child into his midst.
I was reading that children should begin competing at around the age of eight. At eight years old, they start having the mentality, maturity, and control of their feelings to succeed in the competition. I would imagine that sometime before the age of eight, we were still pretty innocent for each of us. A child is not only someone innocent, but they have no authority. It’s tough for them to be better than anyone else. A child is under the control of their parents and their grade school teachers and principals. They are told to do everything they do, described what they could and can’t do. They don’t have the privilege of driving a car. They don’t have a lot of freedom in what they can do. They don’t have their own money or jobs. They are completely and utterly dependent. Jesus is trying to show us the image of being dependent on God. When we’re dependent on God, the authority thing doesn’t matter so much to us. Was there a time in your life before where winning wasn’t everything? Think back to when you just enjoyed being a child and try to come to that frame of mind. That’s what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel today.
Now, chances are when we changed from being like a child and then turned into a competitor, probably somewhere around the age of eight. Chances are, too, it was a painful moment. Something embarrassing might have happened to us. Something difficult happened to us. Something unfair might have happened to us. Some changes happened to us that were painful. When unfortunate things happen to us, we have a shift that happens into our heart that says I’m never going to let that happen again. So, from now on, I’m going to be first. From now on I’m going to be the best. From now on, I won’t be picked last. I know often that goes all the way into adulthood, you know, where I’m going to get the highest position that I can. I want the best salary that I can have. When you get that position, that salary, you want the next most elevated position, the next highest salary. There’s a constant raising in competitiveness.
There’s a survey that is about expensive cars. You know BMW, Mercedes, cars like that. The survey revealed that 96% of people bought the car not because they like the car but because of how they thought others would perceive them in the car. That was their decision. They were buying the car so that other people would look at them as being kind of high and mighty. The change that happened to us was probably something painful, something challenging. It could have been being rejected. It could have been not making the team. It could have been being bullied. It could have been abuse. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Something like that that happened in our lives. From that time on, we decided I was taking control. And though that’s a good thing, to take control, it becomes a little off course when we try to be our ultimate masters. We try to be first in something that we do. So that’s what we hear the disciples discussing among themselves. Who’s the first? Who’s the most important? Who’s the most powerful? They’re so humbled when Jesus comes up to them and interrupts that conversation.
It’s funny to hear stars talk about their children. Famous movie stars and musicians talk about their kids. They say their kids don’t have a clue what their parents do. In their eyes, their parents aren’t famous, and their parents are just parents. They are like nobodies. It’s hilarious because the stars will reveal the times when their families or children finally started to realize who they were. Maybe they went to a concert with friends. And their friends saw another concert, and they said, “Hey isn’t your mom so and so?” He’s like, “yeah,” and they’re like, “yeah, she does this.” So, there’s a time, I think, when we realize things like this. Jesus points this out; he realizes that this is going on. His disciples are trying to be number one; they’re trying to vie for the highest position. He says to them, “What were you talking about as you were going along the way?” This shocks them and probably embarrasses them. Because they know that they’re talking about being the highest, and that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus had been teaching against this the whole time. He said to them very clearly if anyone wished to be. First, he must be the last of all and servant of all. It doesn’t mean that we don’t compete. That doesn’t mean that you don’t become the highest you can be in whatever profession or hobby or sports you do. Do your best. I was talking to somebody who was the president of a union. This doesn’t mean that he should step down and not be president. It means that he ought to remember that he’s the servant to all of those he leads—the same thing with the priests. We’re not supposed to be high and mighty over everybody. We’re your servants who are here to help you and to love you.
Jesus takes this child and puts it in their midst. I wouldn’t say I like this, actually, but the way that scripture says it, he placed it in their midst. The child doesn’t have a name or that we call a boy or girl. He calls it. Meaning this child has no property or no identity. He places this child in their midst and says whoever receives this child in my name receives not only me, but the one sent me—again, going back to children having no authority. In the scriptures that we are reading, they weren’t even seen as being complete people. They were just children. It’s not just becoming like a child or just becoming it. It’s going back to that original childhood innocence that wasn’t trying to climb the ladder of success. It was simply enjoying life and simply wanting to be a servant. While we’re working or competing or parenting or just trying to survive in life, it means remembering that we are all, in fact, children. Every one of us is a child, ultimately a child of God. That’s our identity. It’s not who can become the greatest or the greatest but that we are a child of God. It’s important to remember as we look out towards other people, they are children of God. We’re like grown-up children. Some of us are still not healed from issues that have happened to us. If we could treat each other gently and treat each other lovingly, then we would explore that experience, that great mystery that Jesus was talking about. If we receive a child, who receives one who is childlike into ourselves, into our midst and embrace them, then we not only accept that child or that person, we receive Jesus. We not only receive Jesus, but we receive God the father.
As we celebrate this mass, open yourselves up to that childlike wonder to become a child yourself. Maybe even more importantly, to see other people as children and to serve and to help them.