Subtitle: A personal reflection and biblical meditation at the head (aye, ahead) of a new year.
The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.1-4).
At the approach of New Year’s Day, myriad were the news stories of the deaths, during 2019, of “notables” (read: famous or, indeed, infamous persons); most of whom, I reckon, were not numbered among the nearest and dearest of common folk like (perhaps you and, surely) me.
Although I embrace the truth of John Donne’s poetic word, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” I also take note of how uniformly we humans lend our attention to distinguished persons (the marking of the expiries of whom being but one example) who, in the words of the prayer, live and move and have their being in the public eye. Actors and artists, commercial entertainers and entrepreneurs, military, political, and religious leaders, social media icons and influencers. Where they live and vacation. With whom they associate, date, or marry. What they wear and eat. How they make and spend their money.
Nothing inherently wrong with this, I think. The words and deeds of those who live on the world’s stage, as they affect us, naturally evoke, provoke our attention. A problem can arise when we seek to live our lives through them.
In this, I make two New Year’s Day confessions…
First, I acknowledge that I possess (or, perhaps, am possessed by) an ego, which, at best, expresses itself in my healthy self-esteem and, at worst, my unwholesome self-conceit.
Second, regarding the latter – for some reasons of which I am aware (and, doubtless, for more motivations, which, as unconscious, of which I am unaware) – I admit that there are moments when I, desiring the acclaim of the crowd, wish that I was one of the “notables,” the distinguished persons about whom great public fuss is made.
In this (and whenever I am in this mode of thinking and feeling and being), I, gratefully, cry, “Thank you, Jesus!”
For as human nature, in many ways, through time, remains the same, in Jesus’ day, as now, public personages were viewed as inspirational and behavioral models worthy of emulation. So much so that his disciples would ascribe such worldly standards to the life of God’s kingdom. Jesus, in response, in his day and ours, turned this human tendency to liken earthly notoriety to eternal greatness on its proverbial and literal head.
Who is the greatest? Jesus called a child…
A child. Whether in a first century household or, in any era, as a pawn in an adult “game” of war or in a current-day detention camp of émigrés on America’s southern (or any nation’s) border or as the object of the satisfaction of the lusts of human-trafficking, a child is a person and personification of unimportance. Yet a child, exhibiting, embodying the paradoxical strengths of powerlessness – innocence, humility, unpretentiousness, unpreoccupation with worldly, thus, transient trappings – is, for Jesus, the person and personification of notability, of nobility.
So, this New Year’s Day, I bow my head and heart into my hands and pray: O Jesus, daily, by Your Spirit, make me a child. Amen.
Illustration: Jesus and the little child, James Tissot (1836-1902)