They shall be my people, and I will be their God, with faithfulness and justice.Zechariah 8:8
“For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”Luke 9: 48
We are reminded with the words of Zechariah that the God of Israel and our God is a God of “faithfulness and justice.” And we are reminded by Jesus that it is when we become least of all, like a child who in his day was not even a person, that we abide in the radiance of God’s kingdom. Throughout our lives we have been taught that God is faithful, far more faithful to us than we often are to God. Yet, countless times in our life, it is very difficult for us to see, in practice, the fidelity of God in our regard. Perhaps this is, at least in part, because while God is always faithful and just, we have great difficulty in maintaining the equilibrium between fidelity and justice in our own lives.
At the heart of Pope Francis’ teaching lies the primacy of mercy, the mercy of God for us and the mercy we are then to have for each other. To have lived human life for some time is to be taught that if we are to remain faithful in relationship, in commitment, in duty and responsibility, we must frequently both give and receive mercy. To be human is inevitably to fail, even our deepest aspirations and commitments, so there can be no sustained faithfulness without mercy and forgiveness.
For most of my own life I have been fairly quick to apologize. As a person whose early formation developed a strongly appeasing personality in me, I want others to like me and to confirm my goodness and likability. Thus, I experience extreme discomfort when I am not liked and approved. The result is that I tend to do whatever I must to create or restore the relationship my own unconscious craves. As happens in the course of human formation, however, that bias has increasingly led me to a state of dis-ease when I too readily submit to it and act in accordance with it. What this dis-ease is slowly teaching me are the demands of justice inherent in faithfulness and mercy. To reconcile with untruth is, in the long run, destructive of relationship and of every level of faithfulness.
The Hebrew Scriptures are constantly teaching us, through history, of this truth. God is forever faithful to the Hebrew people, but that fidelity at times manifests in exile and punishment. In every case that occurs, not because “God wills it” but rather because the people have ceased to be faithful to the truth, they have forgotten the place of justice in their relationships to God and each other. When our relationships to each other break down into mutual gratification of our infantile needs, we are not being faithful or just. My bias toward relating to others in appeasement came out of my basic childhood misunderstanding that my being loved and approved of depended on my pleasing and appeasing the others.
My godson just graduated last June from high school. Before beginning at university next year, he is taking a “gap year” that brings him to England, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as Japan and Thailand. Currently he is spending several weeks just outside of Tokyo being immersed in Japanese. I am more than slightly astounded at the kind of self-confidence and trust that he has at his age that allows him to venture out so far “on his own.” As I related this to a confrere, he responded: “Yes, he has been given both roots and wings.” Wherever our wings take us, and whatever we become able to do in and for the world, we must always be rooted in the truth. Psalm 85 tells us of a moment when “Kindness and truth shall meet, justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven” (vv. 10-11). To be truly faithful (which means to be truly loving) requires that we be rooted in the truth. Otherwise, whatever relationships we build, whatever we create, whatever so-called ministry we engage in will be but manifestations of our irreducible infantile residue, not of the faithfulness and justice of God.
The difficulty with all of this in practice is that the access of any of us to “the truth” of things is inherently partial. As Adrian van Kaam says, as humans we are inherently “perspectival.” This truth brings us to the gospel reading. While we must be rooted in our commitment, our fidelity to the truth of things, we must also admit to ourselves and to the world that our view of that truth is partial and distorted. It is distorted by the limitations of our cultures and the infantile residues of which we have spoken.
For example, just this morning I was listening to an interview with the recently deceased author Toni Morrison. In it she is asked about a question she received some years earlier about when she would begin to write about something other than “race.” Her response to the question was that it was not a literary question, but rather a question from the bias of the majority racial constituency. She was being asked by a white person when she would break out of her “racial” limitations as a writer and write about white people. It was the kind of question that comes out of the bias of the members of the controlling majority in a culture, the source of which is unconscious to them. The interviewer suggested to her that perhaps she was over-interpreting the intention of the question. While humbly acknowledging this possibility, Toni Morrison reiterated that her interpretation was her only way of reading it. When minorities of any kind assert a place that the dominant culture has not afforded them (in this case being presented as developed and full human persons), they always sound excessive to the majority, or to the powerful. Self-assertion of those who have had their personhood limited or denied will always be seen as refusal to keep their proper place, as the culturally dominant have defined it.
In today’s gospel Jesus rather dramatically counters the cultural perception about the significance of a child. It is taken for granted that children, as women in large part, are not persons but property. And he says, if you are to inhabit and be significant in the Kingdom your dominant sense of who is important and who isn’t must change. We can romanticize this teaching as we wax eloquent on the call to “spiritual childhood.” Or, we can allow the situation and the words of Jesus to challenge the ways in which we categorize the significant and insignificant. We have to listen to ourselves as we define who, in our own circles, is valuable and important and who isn’t. In my own small community, there are identified those who are necessary to the project and those who are not. There is readiness to hear the voices of some but not those of others. There are those who are judged as worthy and those, whose failings or mistakes are more public, who are considered of less worth. There are those whose work is recognized by our culture as more significant and those whose work is hidden who are seen as expendable.
Jesus places the child by his side. In word and act, he reminds us at every moment that we are to receive those that we by culture and pride form would marginalize. We deny the truth every time we negate the significance of another human being. And, in negating that truth, we cease to reflect the faithfulness of God. Because the truth is sometimes painful and unpleasant, we mistakenly believe it is contradictory to kindness. Because justice overturns our unconscious drives to fusion and uprightness, we often deny the claims of justice in the service of reconciliation and faithfulness. But it is the truth that we are already in communion. We serve that communion by dealing in justice and truth with all the ways we distort or forsake that communion. We never serve it by denying the truth of the situation. We are like children, in Jesus’ sense, when we bring our own marginalization to the fore. When we forsake the way of power for the way of mercy and justice, we are receiving the child who is among and within us.
Our culture does not have much space for this teaching. Culturally we have more than a certain respect for the arrogant and the bullying. We are attracted by the very falseness of others. For many of us, it is not those acts of failure in us that constitute our greatest sin. It is rather our refusal to face the truth and trusting in the faithfulness of God. We fear the truth because we fear the death of our own illusions which constitute our false selves. But it is in the truth that we shall discover the justice and faithfulness of God, and there the deep roots of our love of each other.
You have been told, O mortal, what is good,Hosea 6:8
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God