And sitting down he called out to the twelve and says to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  And taking a small child he stood him in their midst, and folding the child in his arms he said to them, “Whoever in my name receives one of the little children, like this one, receives me; and whoever receives me receives not me but the one having sent me forth.”

Mark 9:35-37

The disciples have just been arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. As Mark relates the narrative this occurs just after Jesus has told them that he must be handed over to his enemies, suffer, die, and in three days be raised up. We are told that the disciples do not understand what Jesus is saying, and yet they do not dare to question him about it. If we think about it, this is really not so difficult to understand. The absence of questioning suggests that there is a certain willfulness in the disciples’ not understanding. They do not want to hear or understand what the “master” is telling them about what awaits him. Jesus is the incarnation of the truth that he utters when they arrive in Capernaum and are settled in the household: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

As spiritual, we human beings are always striving for more. The true goal of that striving for the flourishing and fulfillment of our deepest identity is often not conscious in us, and so we find ourselves directing our striving in accord with the pulsations and values of our time and culture. As different as human cultures are, however, it seems safe to say that Jesus’ understanding of the way to our flourishing and fulfillment is quite foreign to them all. Certainly our own culture tells us that to be someone we are to stand out and be recognized, usually by having some level of power and control over others. So there is little wonder that the disciples, given their own expectations of Jesus, cannot even allow into consciousness his destiny as he describes it.  

We are told that this dialogue between Jesus and the disciples is occurring after they have settled in the household. In this household there are obviously children. And so Jesus dramatically illustrates his point by taking up a child in his arms and telling them that whoever receives a child, receives him, and not him alone but the one who sent him. In Jesus’ time children, as well as women and slaves, had no social standing at all. So, to receive a child was to recognize the culturally unrecognized and to make space for and respond to the culturally insignificant. This is not easy for us, from our perspective, to fully appreciate. We may wonder how a culture can be so blind and arrogant as to reserve the “rights and privileges” of standing and citizenship only to adult men, although our “sainted” Founding Fathers did the same. 

To apply Jesus’ teaching, then, we must ask ourselves, “What are our unconscious and blind cultural prejudices?” As John Kenneth Galbraith would characterize it, What are the innocent (and not so innocent) frauds we perpetrate through our cultural and economic systems?To recognize these would allow us to see who are the insignificant and lowly ones that Jesus is calling us to “receive.” One of the frauds that Galbraith points out, and one to which almost all of us unconsciously espouse, is the ultimate value of “hard work.” If it is not children and women we diminish and exclude, it is those whom we deem as “lazy irresponsible, a burden—simply no good.” On the other hand we tend to exalt those at the upper levels of our society and caste system who are wealthy and who actually work very little as being duly rewarded “for their hard work.” Of course, in truth, many if not most of the wealthy did not at all work their way to such affluence and leisure. Yet the myth persists.

So for the affluent, leisure is a virtue, a just reward. The time and energy to engage in those distinctively human activities of enjoyable work, creativity, and play are seen as deserved and a good for the wealthy, but as unjust and immoral for the poor.  

As I was reading Galbraith, I had to admit that I was pulled up short. So deeply embedded in my consciousness and value system are these capitalist and market-based values, and modes of distinction among peoples, that I don’t realize them for the prejudices that they are. I had never really reckoned with the reality that I have far too little problem with work being mere toil for so many and its being a mode of self-expression and means of fulfillment for the privileged others, including myself. In truth, our culture and society, by its very system of values, excludes the majority of persons from full human status. When we debate a livable minimum wage, the length of a work week, access to medical care, just progressive taxation, or needed supports for education, parks, public transportation and whatever affects the quality of life for all and the common good, we tend to speak of these as if they are handouts, as if “we” who are the real citizens are condescendingly giving to those who are less. And we justify all this in terms of “work.” In contrast, all of the ways in which we tilt the rules of governance in favor of the affluent goes unnoticed — for these are the people, we unjustly claim, who produce jobs and work.  

The recent dispute about the new Amazon headquarters in New York is a striking example. The proponents of the project pointed to the tens of thousands of jobs that would be created, thus justifying enormous public support and funding for the project. Yet, it is clear that most of those jobs, given developing robot technology, would not be well paying jobs for the ordinary “worker,” but rather largely high-tech jobs for the already comfortable. For Amazon and so many others, farm out their manual work like shipping to companies that are notorious for underpaying and mistreating their workers. So the presence in Long Island City of Amazon would definitely boost “the economy” there, but it would not boost the quality of life for the majority of the people who live there.  

So, whom are we, in our time and culture, to receive if we are to receive Jesus and, in him, the one who sent him forth to us? Is it actually the majority of our people, in an affluent nation, that are not affluent. Is it just, let alone truly human, that at one level of income we can afford to engage in the creativity and leisure that deepens our humanity and fosters human flourishing and that the majority who are not at that level have no opportunity to do so. Strange as it may seem to us, in the minds of those deemed worthy and valuable in Jesus time, women, slaves and children were invisible. Jesus dramatically makes his point about who and what is important by taking a child into his arms and telling his disciples that it is in recognizing and making space for such a child that he is welcomed. Yet, at some point, God willing, it will be found strange that we, who declare ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples in what we proclaim to be a Christian nation, do not recognize as our equals the majority of our fellow citizens whose human possibilities are constrained by their need to relentlessly work at jobs that afford them no satisfaction or deeper sense of life.  

We who have served in educational ministry in our market-based culture are justly proud of our students who have proven “successful.” But how do we measure that success? Without sufficient reflection and without the counter-cultural imperatives of the gospel, it is easy to fall prey to the conventional wisdom of our times. After World War II a movement of worker-priests emerged in France and Belgium, strongly supported by Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard of Paris. Those priests who constituted its membership were to take up work in the factories and construction sites in order to be with and to come to know the lives of their fellow workers. The movement, which began to become very politically active as the priests experienced the lives of these ordinary workers, was ordered discontinued precisely for this reason. It was many years later allowed to continue in modified form by Pope Paul VI. Theological and ecclesial controversies aside, it would seem that this movement was an attempt to live out today’s gospel, to receive Jesus in joining and being with today’s equivalent of the children of Jesus’ time. And it was impossible for the priests who did this to do so without becoming politically active in an attempt to change those policies which disempowered these workers.  

So, what is the call in all of this? What does it mean in our lives to recognize that we perceive and judge human value and worth through the filters and with the blinders of our culture. In Jesus’ time, and still to a degree in ours, one’s sex and age and role of servitude determined whether one was high or low in the culture. Now, however, it appears that servitude is in terms of one’s role in the market. Where we find ourselves on a market-based scale determines the quality and potential of our human life. When Jesus says we are to be “the last of all” isn’t he calling us to place ourselves with and for the unrecognized and expendable? It would seem, at the very least, that we are called to cease judging as our culture does and perhaps to change our social and ecclesial circles.

In the United States and, if less so, in other of the developed countries, no individuals invite as much criticism as those who escape the obligation to work.  They are lazy, irresponsible, a burden—simply no good. This condemnation becomes severe when the alternative to work is public support. Nothing is publicly so unacceptable as going from work to welfare. The latter is the least reputable of all public expenditures. Even the welfare mother, a figure in social comment, is not spared; she should have worked instead of yielding to the pleasures of sex. Hailed as good are those by whom work is enjoyed. Also those who, having wealth and well-being, seize the rewards of leisure, personal friendship, public concern and expression and do not work at all. . . . Work is thought essential for the poor; release therefrom is commendable for the rich.

The extent and depth of the fraud inherent in the word “work” is evident. . . . Just because leisure is an acceptable alternative for the affluent, it can still be morally damaging for the poor. It also costs money, public, and private—for shorter work-weeks, holidays. Therefore, while idleness is good for a leisure class in the United Stated and all advanced countries, it is commonly condemned for the poor. Social judgment is thus accommodated to personal pleasure and a favoring reward.

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time, pp. 19-20

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