“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.”
Matthew 18: 3-5
This morning in the United States we awoke to word of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history. As I write, over 50 people are dead and over 400 wounded, apparently at the hands of single gunman randomly shooting concert goers in Las Vegas with multiple automatic weapons. It is in the midst of such social madness and chaos that Jesus speaks the worlds “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” What does Jesus mean when he says that we must “turn and become like children”?
In the Ted talk which Pope Francis gave to the Ted Conference in Vancouver in 2017, he said:
We don’t think about it often, but everything is connected, and we need to restore our connections to a healthy state. Even the harsh judgment I hold in my heart against my brother or my sister, the open wound that was never cured, the offense that was never forgiven, the rancor that is only going to hurt me, are all instances of a fight that I carry within me, a flare deep in my heart that needs to be extinguished before it goes up in flames, leaving only ashes behind.
Pope Francis points out that we are disconnected because of the harsh judgments we hold against each other. The truth of the matter is that we judge both others and ourselves harshly. Society, and far too often even families and communities, are situations where we experience the need to defend ourselves, from others and ourselves. As Pope Francis says, we all live with open wounds that have never been cured, offenses against others that have never been forgiven, a rancor that threatens to enflame us and others.
In the scriptures, the opposite of love is not hate; it is fear. We fear, and so aggress, upon each other because we fear our own vulnerability. So forcibly are we running from that vulnerability that we are pushing all in our path. So, when Jesus says to turn and become like children he may mean, at least in part, to turn from the flight from ourselves and to return to ourselves. Children are not “humble” in the spiritual sense of the term. In fact, they are inherently self-centered. The sense in which they are humble is that they cannot escape the truth of their own need and vulnerability. They are trusting because they realize, albeit pre-reflectively, that they need others.
I can’t remember when it happened, but at some point I became ashamed of my weakness and vulnerability. The goal of maturity for which I longed was an escape from the pain of need and incompleteness that I would feel when I was aware of my loneliness and disappointment, my desire to have another or others complete me. At some point in the process of self-formation, we become increasingly distant from our own souls. The more we distance from ourselves and our souls, the more our stance before others becomes that of power rather than compassion. Without being deeply in touch with who we really are, we cannot experience compassion for others. We can only manipulate and control them in order to keep the terrifying aspects of human life and world at a distance.
Later on in his Ted talk, Pope Francis calls us to rediscover what he calls the sometimes inconvenient word “solidarity.” He then says:
When one realizes that life, even in the middle of so many contradictions, is a gift, that love is the source and the meaning of life, how can they withhold their urge to do good to another fellow being?
The child does not yet live with the illusion of self-sufficiency. To that degree, he or she lives with a certain sense of his or her life as a gift. When I was a very young child, I think my happiest moments were when my parents and I would play together. I can still remember sitting around the living room as we would throw a beanbag without signaling in advance who was to be the recipient. I can hear my mother, to this day, having thrown it in my direction calling on me to “think fast” before it could hit me in the face. As I reflect back on such times, I realize that the happiness I was experiencing at these moments was an indication and a teaching “that love is the source and the meaning of life.”
To recall such relatively minor and yet life forming and sustaining moments of childhood is to realize again, in a kind of second naiveté, that our own life is, as Pope Francis says, “a gift.” Furthermore, it is a gift that is mediated to us by the love of others, by those who have loved and who do love us. To realize this is to experience the urge, as he puts it, “to do good to another fellow being.” To turn from fleeing our center to entering it, and so becoming in a new way a child again, changes our relationship to others. The quality it adds to our presence and relationships is that of “tenderness.”
The third message I would like to share today is, indeed, about revolution: the revolution of tenderness.
What is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.
In the love we are offered in our vulnerability as children, we are truly experiencing the very nature of God. In what is paradoxical to our usual way of thinking, tenderness is a manifestation of God’s omnipotence. It is precisely because God is God that Jesus characterizes God’s love with the stories of the Prodigal Son (or better the Prodigal Father) and the Good Samaritan. We tend to think of tenderness as manifesting weakness. Yet, tenderness is only possible to one who has the courage to be fully human, to have faced all that is vulnerable, weak, and dark in him or herself, and so is able to be tender with the other in their need, in their suffering, and even in their sinfulness.
Pope Francis does not exaggerate when he describes his call for tenderness as a call for revolution. Socially speaking there is little evidence of tenderness in our world and in our lives. In recent weeks I have found myself unable to listen any longer to what we call “news.” Once something of a public radio addict, I now find myself too disturbed by the assertiveness and arrogance in the ways we speak to and about each other. Most often our speech is a self-assertive attempt to set others straight. Such competitive assertiveness leads but to more defensiveness and self-assertion, to more frustration and anger, to greater disharmony and discord. Listening and response to the true appeal of the other requires tenderness. It requires being where the other is, as God has done for us, as my parents would do in playing games with me as a child.
Tenderness requires courage because it opens us to our own fears, doubts, wounds, and needs. To be in this way is to realize the truth that we need each other. That every time we avoid responding to another in need, we are also diminished. To ignore another or to hurt another is to foster a consciousness in ourselves that believes that the others think of us and would treat us in kind. After the moment of crisis passes in this yet latest of mass killings in the United States, we shall once again refuse to confront its significance and meaning for us as a people. After the time of initial shock and sentimental references to “thoughts and prayers,” we shall once again let our fear of ourselves and each other be manipulated by arms profiteers. We shall continue to perpetuate the illusion of our separateness and deny our common need for each other. Because we continue to flee from ourselves, and are unable to turn and become children again, we live as if the best hope of each of us is to be “the last person standing.”
. . . Or, we could recognize the call of Jesus today. We could turn from our desire to dominate, to remain even after all the others are gone, and rather to recognize the truth of our solidarity, of our communion, of our need to be tender with each other.
Do I gently nurse my own soul . . . . Or do I punish my soul in disappointment when it feels wounded and small? How can I find rest for my soul if I talk to it harshly? Do I see the Divine Master of my soul as a master of affliction or a master of gentility?
. . . .
I may feel that the Eternal thinks thoughts of affliction about me. Perhaps this is because I cast Him in my own image. Say that somebody tricked me. My first thought was to get even with him. I thought only of revenge. Maybe I myself was unjust to another. I felt sure he cast upon me the same thoughts of affliction I would have cast on him, had he done the same thing to me.
Adrian van Kaam, Spirituality and the Gentle Life, pp. 167-8