Who is Great?
by Rev. Fr. K K John, Philadelphia
Tenth Sunday after the Holy Feast of Pentecost
Gospel Text: Mathew 18:1-14.
Today is tenth Sunday after Holy Feast of Pentecost. In certain years there are 12 Sundays before the next feast which is the Feast of Transfiguration (Tabernacle) on August 6. We have come to another important season of the Church year namely, Soonoyo Lent that begins today, 1st August.
Today's reading addresses two thought provoking themes,
(1) who is great in the Kingdom of heaven, v 1-4, 9 ( 1a) offending a believer in Christ, v 5-10 and
(2) parable of the lost sheep, v 11-14.
I limit my discussion to the first theme for fear of length. The very question, "who is great" stems from selfish thought. All living beings are created with certain degree of selfishness which is basic to survival, but when it exceeds the limit and breaks the boundary it becomes hazardous to self and the community.
Selfishness has both positive and negative sides; a competition spirit in examinations, job selections, sports, business, etc is good side of selfishness necessary for progress but, if unchecked and outgrown into self-centeredness unmindful of others, it becomes harmful. Nothing wrong if one wants to be great or number one through qualities and socially acceptable and genuine means but employing illicit and hidden agendas, ways and means depriving the deserving others are not conducive to competition.
Disciples, in the course of three plus years' training into gospel ministry, might have asked too numerous questions and Jesus answered them all with a spirit of Rabbinical authority, all of them are not written in the gospels. It is unfair to brand the disciples as power mongers. Had they not asked such a question, they would not have learned what true greatness was and such ignorance would have become a pivotal reason for future wrangling. Disciples' question and Jesus' explanation has thus prevented a future problem; thus I do not attribute stings to the disciples' question, whatever might be the circumstance.
Jesus set a child in their midst and said, "Except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
According to our tradition Mor Ignatius Noorono, third bishop of Antioch (1, St Peter- Semavoon Reeso D'sleehe, 2, Evodius) was the child Jesus took in his hands and so he acquired the surname, "Theoforos," which means, he whom God bore in his hands.
Disciples might have had a wrong notion that by virtue of being with Jesus they will be assured entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here Jesus corrected them revealing a virtue essential to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Why Jesus took the example of a child? Child, in the first part, connotes biological sense, that is, of young age. A child is a symbol of many virtues; growth process, immature, inquisitive to learn, adaptability to situations, innocent, unsuspecting, straightforward, truthful, frank, ignorant to cook-up stories, trusting the near-ones, unmerited dependence on parents, courteous, not revenging, humility to accept the wrong, reconciling and so on. Each of these qualities is worth a long discussion. Why, but for these qualities, God chose the child-Samuel to convey His message of judgment to the old man Eli?
Leo Tolstoy wrote how soon and easily children forget the offences in his famous story, "Little girls are wiser than their elders." The Russian story thus goes: on a festive day some girls clad in new dress were playing in the street. One opprobrious girl splashed mud on the new dress. The girl ran into her house crying aloud and sobbing, told her parents what happened. The parents took the matter offensively to the parents of the offending girl. Without much delay neighbors joined sides and a great street fight ensued. After hours of fighting the matter got worse. But some of them looked back at the girls and to their surprise they saw the girls playing together as if nothing had ever happened. This sight, Tolstoy sums up, opened the eyes of the fighting elders and they learned a lesson and stopped fights.
Many of us have read the story and yet we, so-called-Christian brethren, especially the spiritual leaders cannot reconcile the differences and come to Church unity. They establish independent empires not knowing that by division they are becoming independent of God and Savior and risking their own salvation.
Jesus was teaching that the disciples must practice all these qualities and more found in young children. What the children do not have or do not know is pride and arrogance of the older people. Pride and arrogance destroy not only the individual but the social fabric as a whole and hence a Christian ought to shun such and similar evils.
Think for a moment, is it not the pride and arrogance of certain leaders on both sides, eternalize faction feud in our church? Will the leaders open their eyes! Recounting the immature, ignorant and thoughtless nature of a child St. Paul admonished that matured men must put away the childish things, 1Cor 13:11. He meant; we ought to `be child-like but not childish.' Child-like means be humble and simple, be obedient to law of God and nation, and depend on God as children cleave unto their parents. Humility is the crown of all virtues. Devoid of humility other virtues shall be futile.
Another aspect Jesus wanted to teach was the context of social perception about children. Jewish community did not acknowledge the children at par with adults. St. Paul says, "That the heir, as long as he is a child differs nothing from a servant though he be lord of all; but is under the tutors and governors until the time appointed. When we were children, we were in bondage under the elements of the world," Gal 4:1. There is an adage in our vernacular, `Treat the infant a god, adolescent child a servant and grown up equal;' in other words, the children are to be brought up in strict discipline. No doubt, all societies confer children as birthright to be loved, cared and nurtured. Yet, there exists certain neglect, offending and ignoring in all societies, when it comes to decision making of cardinal issues in the household. So even, the disciples were vulnerable to open criticism, rebellion, scandals, mitigation and such other negative responses from affluent members of society where they preach gospel.
Jesus on another occasion said, "I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be wise as serpents and harmless like doves," Mat 10:16. Enduring the inevitable rebellion and scandals is a cost of true discipleship. But the disciple is expected to keep aloof from negative influences and put themselves above reproach.
Again children are given things, according to what they deserve, not as a right, but as free gift, a benefit from the parents. So even, it is not as a rightful share but as free gift from God, the disciple is blessed. This is an important point a disciple, believer or person in a position of authority should always keep in mind that God placed him/her in such position and therefore not his/her will but the Will of God should prevail at all cost; and the ultimate goal is Glory of God. Had the spiritual hierarchy of both factions understood this principle, there would be no reason to pursue a course of division and hatred that we are now in.
"Child" in the second part of the theme refers to spiritual aspect. One who has come into Christian faith is more like a child who has to learn and mature. In other words, a new comer in faith is a child in spiritual matters, Hebrew 5:12-14. It is in this sense St. Paul advised Timothy not to lay hands on new converts, 1Tim 5:22. Hudaya Canon 7:3&5 insists not to consecrate a bishop unless tested for long time, convinced of his steadfast faith and blameless conduct and received consent of the synod. I wish, had certain prelates in the past prudence to obey the canon, the Church would have been free from most of the present day problems!
Jesus was fond of Children and pointed a child as model of Christian discipleship. A Christian believer can be from any walk of life; from a ruling class to vassal, from a newborn to aged, from scholar to illiterate, from Jews or gentiles and from any nation or from any race. Once he or she accepted and confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and baptized in the name of Holy Trinity, he/she is a disciple at par with others irrespective of how or who they were before.
We who come from the social background of Indian, much despicable, caste system, are badly obsessed with vanity of high-caste origin. Many do not understand that their notion is farce. Historically it is not true. By saying that St. Thomas converted only high caste Brahmins, the claimants are painting an indelible black mark on St. Thomas and Jesus through St. Thomas that they believed and encouraged caste system which was peculiar to India alone and unknown in the other parts of the world. Jews or gentiles had no caste system. Neither Jesus nor St. Thomas, knew (not in information sense) the caste system in India and how they could promote something they did not know or believe right? By vanity, pride and arrogance we branded the converted believers, "Kollan Chacko, Pulayan Mathai, Kuravan John" etc and offended them. We followed a wrong course segregating the baptized faithful in the name of caste. That was the chief reason why Christianity did not flourish in India, as elsewhere. Regrettably we have self-downsized as an exclusive society.
Jesus Christ sternly warned those who offend a disciple. One should not cause a disciple to sin either. A disciple must resist worldly temptations and not persuade others to temptation for; causing to sin is the worst sin. Punishment Jesus prescribed to the offender seems too harsh and non-palatable for the modern man. We should understand that Jesus was speaking to the disciples of Jewish background who knew well the Mosaic Law and they could easily relate to the severity of offence and its ramifications. Jesus did not mean a physical mutilation of organs, I guess, but was insisting that salvation of soul is more important than the physical organs; that one should be more keen to strive for salvation of soul than preserving the physical organ and get the soul lost. This message is extremely relevant in a world of materialistic obsession, namely, whether material prosperity or the eternal life of soul is more important. Jesus said, "What profit is to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? Mat. 16:26 and "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything shall be added unto you," Mat 6:33.
Let me conclude: Mathew chapter 18 deals with exhortation about the unity and discipline of the Church. What ought to be the attitude of the members, how they ought to relate to one another, etc. Seven qualities are poignantly mentioned, responsibility, self-renunciation, caring others, discipline, fellowship and forgiveness, humility being the most important. The pinnacle: members must forgive each other and reconcile differences, if any, desist from all dangers that destroy the unity and integrity of the Church.
The phrase, "unless you turn" is a warning that the disciples were on the wrong way, the way of destruction and the first priority is to repent and turn back into the right direction; that is, the way of salvation. This call of Jesus (unless you turn) is more relevant to the spiritual leaders in our times than to anyone, anytime before. God save our Church!
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