Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Santo Niño, Year A, Matthew 18:1-5.10, January 16, 2011.
In a section on the life of Brother Juniper, one of the original companions of St Francis of Assisi, the book The Little Flower of St Francis relates that one day, when Brother Juniper saw many pilgrims going to a solemn celebration taking place in Assisi, the spirit of self-contempt came over him. He stripped himself stark naked without his breeches, and went through Spello and two other villages, and passed through the center of Assisi and all the crowd, and came to the friars’ Place. Very much shocked and scandalized, the friars rebuked him, calling him a lunatic, a fool, and a disgrace to the order of St Francis, and declaring him to be put in chains as a madman. The General, who was staying at the Place, gave Brother Juniper a harsh and severe scolding in the presence of the community of friars. Then he said: “Your fault is so great and serious that I don’t know what penance I should give you.” And the Brother replied: “I’ll tell you Father, that I came here naked, so as penance I should go back naked along the same road to the place from which I came to this festival.”
This anecdote enables us to peer through the life of some of the original companions of St Francis, a life characterized by a blatant disregard for social status. Of course, only a fool, or one who considers himself equal to one, would walk naked through the city streets, and fools, like the scum of the earth, are the expendables of society, whose presence hardly anyone gives a hoot about, and whose death hardly anyone mourns. We recall this biographical incident in the life of Brother Juniper because it goes against what people in our “normal” society strive after—social status. To be candid about it, most people probably want to be important before the eyes of society, and to feel important. They want to be number one. That is why some become sad when others, for example, surpass their level importance in the estimate of society. No wonder the rich exploit the poor, the intelligent take advantage of the simple, men lord it over women, the white oppress the black. It is most likely that this culture has seeped in through Matthew’s community. In the Gospel of Mark, we are told that upon returning to Capernaum, the disciples were arguing “who was the most important among them” (Mark 9:33-34). In Matthew’s Gospel, however, we are not told of the setting; he simply relates that the disciples came up to Jesus to ask the question: “Who is of greatest importance in the Kingdom of God” (Matt 18:1).
That such question is raised merely indicates that the Christian community has not been immune to this disease called striving after prominence. That is why Matthew preserved for us this episode in order to warn us of its dangers. For one thing, when it has members who want to get ahead of the rest and be recognized as number one, the community suffers and is divided, with the result, for example, that there arises a stiff competition among them. Relationships are, of course, affected. Some would refuse to talk with those they compete with. Snobbery passes for virtue. The community in the end imitates people in the secular world who are caught up in a social order that values only the rich, the powerful, and the prestigious. Because such a culture harms the Christian community, Jesus offers an alternative social order where man is respected not because of what he has—prestige, money, power—but because of what he is. His alternative, which is God’s will for our society and community, is the Kingdom of God. Under the rule of God, a new set of values is provided. And Jesus does this by setting the child as the greatest in the Kingdom: “Whoever makes himself lowly, becoming like a child, is of greatest importance in that heavenly reign” (Matt 18:4).
But why a child? The reason for this is that a child in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time was a social nobody. In practice, he has no legal rights. His words do not count. This implies that in the social order that Jesus anticipates, which is the Kingdom of God, one no longer thinks in terms of social hierarchy or status. What matters is not one’s credentials or what he has, but what he simply is—a child of God. St Paul puts it this way: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female” (Gal 3:28). What Vatican II says is of relevance: “There remains a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ” (Lumen gentium, 32). We know of course that in the secular society, the bond of the community suffers precisely because members vie for the most prominent place; others even destroy each other just in order to be in that place of prominence. Moreover, if Jesus chooses a child as model for the society of the future, it is because he envisages a reversal of outlook: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matt 18:3). Changing and becoming little children mean the same thing here: both refer to an abandonment of the standards and values of the secular world and acceptance of God’s values. In other words, the saying involves a change of values and a reversal in the direction of our lives. This means, for example, that greatness lies in one’s being unimportant. And what the world holds as valuable has no importance at all before the judgment seat of God.
In practical Christian living, this means that instead of aspiring for one’s prominent place in the Christian community, a Christian ought to think in terms of what he can contribute to it. As we saw, the community of believers is one body, members of one another (Eph 4:25b). Such being the case, one’s behavior always affects the whole community. If the head, for instance, gets all the food, and some parts do not function, the whole body will suffer. There are two important implications of this interconnectedness. First, because one must think not in terms of one’s individual concern but of the whole body, to be a child means to serve others, rather than one’s self: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to ranks first among you must serve the needs of all” (Matt 20:26-27). It is through serving one another that we express our equality, and our being children in one family of God. Second, since one ceases to think of himself, to be a child means self-effacement. One is able to assume the lowest rank before the eyes of the secular society, and accept one’s nothingness. This is what Jesus precisely did: “Though he was in the form of God… he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on the cross!” (Phil 2:7-8). In Jesus we see the humiliation of God, not so much unlike Brother Juniper who received insults for walking naked!
Earlier, we noted that in the face of our society that values being number one, Jesus offers an alternative society. In this community, there is equality of all the members, as they are all children of God, and there is unity, as they are all members of one another. But what make this possible are the service of one another and the humiliation of each member. Since they go together, these two are inseparable—there is no real service without humiliation of self, and humiliation is meaningless unless it is accompanied by service.