Some friends of mine have a four-year-old son who is very generous and thoughtful: he likes to send stickers to his grandmother. For those of you unfamiliar with pre-school culture, stickers are those multi-colored self-adhesive tags that come with fast food meals and coloring books. My friends’ son sends hundreds of stickers at a time, or so he thinks.
The four-year-old thinks he’s sending stickers when, in fact, he’s texting emojis to his grandmother. The grandmother gets text messages composed of dozens of smiley faces, animal images, and sports icons. In his tiny mind, emojis are “stickers.” The entire family thinks this is desperately cute.
In western culture today, little children are unintentionally cute all the time. In Jesus’ culture, by comparison, no such estimation of children existed in anyone’s mind. Jesus and his contemporaries did not think of children as cute; in fact, they hardly thought of children at all. An approximately sixty percent child mortality rate made it difficult for parents to become emotionally attached to their young children. A child began to have value for a family only when the child was old enough to marry; a married male could inherit and protect family property, and a married female could reinforce the family’s wider social relationships.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus placed a child among the group of disciples and said, “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. 9:37) Jesus wasn’t being cute, and his disciples would have felt none of the warm sentiments that we feel about children. Children were among the least important groups in ancient Hebrew society; by embracing a child, Jesus was commanding his disciples to embrace radical humility and selflessness.
I spent quite a lot of time last week trying to think of a social group today which merits the low status attributed to children during Jesus’ lifetime. Convenience store cashiers are seldom considered to be significant in any way. The shelf stockers at grocery stores are often ignored, if not berated. Janitors at big-box stores, the homeless, the hurricane victims in Louisianna, the landslide victims in Haiti – all of these are largely ignored or looked down upon by wider society. None of these above, however, have quite the degree of lowliness attributed to children in ancient Hebrew culture.
After considering many such groups, I settled on one group that is universally judged to be almost entirely devoid of value. How many times have you called the customer service phone number for your credit card, internet modem, or cell phone carrier, and been connected to someone who reads slavishly from a text instead of responding to your urgent entreaties? Is there anything more frustrating and insulting that being forced to listen to a disembodied voice read pedantic instructions for rebooting a Wi-Fi router when you performed that simple procedure numerous times before calling the dreaded customer service phone number?
So, here’s my contemporary update to Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘Calling the customer service number for his cable television provider, Jesus put the witless rep on speakerphone within hearing distance of the disciples and said, “Whoever receives one customer service technician such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me”.’ Jesus’ original statement to the disciples was intended to be precisely this shocking.
Can you imagine yourself embracing, even figuratively, the customer service representative on the other end of a phone call? Why would Jesus command, or even suggest, such shocking behavior? What purpose is served by such radical humility and selflessness?
Jesus compared himself to the lowliest members of society in order to describe accurately the nature of God’s humble mercy. The religious leadership during Jesus’ lifetime was fond of describing God’s mercy as difficult to obtain and reserved only for the most diligent and deserving. Jesus understood this to be false, misleading, and an affront to God. He preached “the kingdom of God,” that is, a renewed way of life that guaranteed right relationships with God and people. The lesson is as appropriate today as it was during Jesus’ lifetime.
The stark humility of God’s mercy is a necessary antidote to the human tendency toward entitlement. During Jesus’ lifetime, the religious leadership considered themselves to be uniquely entitled to God’s love and mercy. Today, our sense of entitlement is no less than that of the Jerusalem Pharisees. Instead of understanding ourselves as residents of one planet, we prefer to think of ourselves as the only resident of the planet. Instead of acting like citizens of a single nation, each of us would like to have our own, personalized nation. Instead of living as members of One Church, we prefer to live in a church with only one member: self. Our natural tendency toward entitlement makes us into the only god in our personal pantheon; only God’s humble mercy rescues us from the bleakness and isolation imposed by our entitlement and selfishness.
In his Incarnation, Jesus accepted our human nature with all its weaknesses. In his Crucifixion, he accepted even death. His life and death are testimony to the humility of God, and they are an obligation for us to imitate him.
Jesus commands his disciples to live in radical humility and selflessness because this alone makes us recipients of God’s humble mercy and imitators of Christ. If you’re really brave, or really faithful, try showing deference to the next customer service rep (or similar person) whom you meet; it will afford you an experience of how God shows mercy to you.