Some friends of mine have a child who is a little more than a year old. The baby is fascinated by the activities of his parents and older siblings. From time to time, someone has to pick him up and remove him from one of the objects of his fascination (mostly flames and electrical appliances). When he is prevented from exploring the objects that interest him, he squirms and complains loudly.
No one can blame an infant for acting out her or his frustrations with a world that doesn’t make complete sense to an immature mind. When infants act in infantile ways, it is appropriate behavior for their age. When adults act in infantile ways, however, it’s just pathetic to watch.
In today’s Gospel reading, the brothers James and John make an unusual request of Jesus. They ask Jesus, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” (Mk. 10:37) A request such as theirs would not have been considered normal in the relationship between disciples and their rabbi. Typically, the role of disciple was subservient to the teacher. In this case, James and John disregarded convention in order to pursue their personal agenda.
James and John acted with a great deal of self-concern; they seem to have given little thought the effect their request would have on Jesus and the others in the group of disciples. In this regard, they were acting in a way that would have been judged very inappropriate. It’s probably fair to judge James and John in this instance as acting in an infantile manner.
It’s normal for infants to be selfish and unaware of the needs of people around them. An infant’s brain is not capable of grasping the personal existence of other people. To an infant’s mind, other people exist in order to serve the infant’s needs. While appropriate for infants, such judgments are far from appropriate for adults.
Last Sunday, I said that we live in an extremely materialistic society. A phrase such as “Final Judgment” used to refer to a religious truth; today, it is most commonly used to refer to the settlement of a personal injury lawsuit. The pervasive materialism of our society did not create itself; rather, it is the product of infantile thinking.
Examples of infantile behavior on the part of adults abound. Gun violence, road rage, theft, and assault are motivated solely by an immature, overly emotional, unthinking reaction to events that might be completely innocuous in themselves. American politics is rife with immature behavior. During recent political campaigns, candidates engaged in churlish name-calling but they were by no means pioneers of this base behavior. A few years ago, a candidate for the Presidency said about his opponent, “In a recent fire N.’s library burned down. Both books were lost. And he hadn’t even finished coloring one of them.” During Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, a newspaper reporter made a public appeal that no more portraits of Lincoln be painted because of Lincoln’s grotesque appearance. Earlier in American politics, the opponents of John Adams referred to him as “His Rotundity” because of his physique.
Childish behavior by adults is all too common and always destructive of society. Most parents have high hopes that their children will grow up to be responsible citizens; not all parents see their hopes realized. We’re supposed to grow out of our infantile self-centeredness, but not all of us do so.
Name calling, temper tantrums, and general disagreeableness are not the only dangers that result from being an emotional infant. Infantile behavior leads to infantile thinking and this leads to embracing an immature image of God. The God who is quick to punish, the God who seems distant, the God who decides who prospers and who suffers – these are infantile, immature images of God. Moreover, they are obstacles to knowing and loving God.
Jesus said, “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45) Jesus understood himself to be one who would carry out God’s will to redeem the world. God’s love for the world is completely selfless and that selflessness is seen in Jesus’ obedience to God. The common cultural images of God as angry, distant, and judgmental are reflections of infantile thinking and rampant over-emotionalism. Those same cultural images are also the cause of a widespread lack of faith.
Jesus wasn’t being sentimental when he said, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” (Mk 10:43-44) Rather, he was describing a mature, adult faith. God is the One who offers human nature what human nature needs but cannot obtain without Divine help. An adult faith is one that trusts God and promotes trust among people.
As with most things in life, infantile behavior is infectious; when one person acts in childish ways, those around her or him will tend to imitate the childishness. Fortunately, mature faith is also infectious; trust begets more trust. If you find yourself surrounded by whiners, complainers, the vengeful, or the ill-tempered, you can choose to join them or you can choose to serve the greater good by being an example of trust and trustworthiness. The former path leads to spiritual death while the latter leads to spiritual life.