Friday, January 13, 2012

To Be a Child of the Kingdom (Like the Santo Niño) Is To Accept Humiliation, Powerlessness and Poverty

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Santo Niño (Mark 10, 13-16),
January 15, 2012

ONE WILL PROBABLY find little difficulty in claiming that the cardinal is his uncle, the governor is his cousin, or the bar topnotcher is his best friend. But most likely, it will not be easy for him to openly admit that a certain prostitute is his sister, a convicted murder is a nephew, or street bum is his grandfather. For, in identifying himself with the powers that be, with those at the top of the social ladder, one feels that this raises his dignity a few notches above the herd of humanity. On the other hand, who would dare to add disgrace to one’s misery? But if the feast of Santo Niño has any message to tell us about being at the top or below with the miserable in the context of the Gospel, it is that we are never truly human, nor are we spiritually children of God, unless we are able to accept as brothers and sisters those rejected by the normal society.

Although today’s Gospel is about Jesus’ blessing of children (Mark 10:13-16), it is very likely that Mark saw some other significance in this narrative. Let us, to begin with, look at the story in its proper literary context. It is interesting to note that Mark has three predictions of the passion. (For Mark, to follow Jesus is to follow him on the road to his passion.) Each time Jesus uttered a prediction, there follows stories which betray a misunderstanding on the part of the disciples who heard them. Today’s Gospel comes after the second prediction. Together with this story of the blessing of children are the narratives on the question of divorce and on the danger of riches. In the story on the issue of divorce, the disciples could not understand why what God has joined could not be separated (Mark 10:10). And in the story of the rich man, the disciples were overwhelmed at the declaration that it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But what is the difficulty in Jesus’ saying, “It is to such as these [children] that the kingdom of God belongs”?

To understand it, we may recall that in the Palestinian Society of Jesus’ time, children were never given importance. The society was the world of the adults. Children had no rights; in fact, they were considered property of their father. A child is thus a symbol not of humility but of unimportance. One is nothing before the world of men. He has nothing to boast. He is empty. Hence, theologically, to be a child is to empty oneself of what he is, which is akin to what is known in Patristics as kenosis. Literally, this means empty, but this usually refers to the action of Christ described in Phil 2:6-7: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, 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 death, death on a cross!” That is to say, though equal with God in rank, Jesus put that rank aside. Though as God the highest honor belongs to him, he assumed the lowest rank of humanity, that of a slave. Though innocent, he accepted the punishment of the guilty. Thus, to be a child of God is to move from riches to nothingness, from powerful to powerlessness, from honor to humiliation, from the regal to slavery.

What Jesus did, and our tendency to identify with those at the top—these crystallize that there are two movements in human life: upward and downward. In the upward movement, we tend to accept honor and praise, we like to assume high position in society, and we delight in building towers that reach the high heavens for recognition. As we noted at the beginning of this essay, most of us do not recoil from such movement. But what is difficult to accept is the downward movement. This occurs when we become miserable, when we suffer defeat or humiliation, or are demoted, when we go down from the top to the lower rung of society. Viewed from this angle, for God to become a child, to empty oneself is to experience such movement. Part of that movement is loving the poor. And Jesus did not only give to the poor, nor simply sympathize with them. To love them, he became one with them. To love the miserable, he experienced their misery. Jesus loved us by becoming one of us, accepting human limitations, and even human misery.

That makes being a child difficult. We recoil at the thought of it, because we are scared of emptiness, loneliness, suffering and death. We backpedal because we are afraid of losing our self-importance, we are afraid to let go of our securities. As in the story of the young man who wanted to gain eternal life (Mark 10:17-27), our face may fall if Jesus challenges us to make ourselves children of the kingdom. With the apostles, we might exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus’ answer was to the point: “For man, it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). This simply means that to accept the kingdom of God like a child is a gift. It is God’s gift. It would not be easy for us, left to ourselves, to make a downward movement. We tend to cling to ourselves, and to what is ours. Indeed, many of us even tend to take for themselves what belongs to others. We are basically selfish. But God can move us. He can give us this gift, and enable us to embrace poverty rather than riches, misery rather than opulence, humiliation rather than honor, to be at the last rather than at the first before the eyes of men. With God, we can even rejoice at our failure and defeat, at our suffering and death. With him, we can be real children of God. Like the Santo Niño.

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