Jesus rarely deals in superlatives. He never speaks of himself as being “the best.” He doesn’t describe his procession into Jerusalem as drawing “the biggest crowd ever.” He never reports his miracles as being “the most amazing miracles ever.” While he does use superlatives when explaining the commandments–this is the first and greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind–he doesn’t use these words in pointing to himself. In other words, Jesus never says, “I’m number one” or “I’m the greatest.” In fact, he does quite the opposite in today’s Gospel.
When the disciples argue about who among them is greatest, Jesus says, “In my kingdom, the last will be first.” And he lifts up a child and explains to them that when they welcome someone who is vulnerable like a child, they welcome him. He doesn’t point to Caesar Augustus and all his wealth. He doesn’t point to Herod the Great and all his power. Instead, he lifts up a little child and says, “When you welcome a little child like this, you welcome me.” In fact, the kingdom of God is concerned entirely not with those who have the most, but those who have the least–the least wealth, the least brawn, the least advantage, the least resources.
In this way, Jesus completely overturns the traditional image of power. Unlike earthly power, which is manifested in crowns, armies and titles, the kingdom of God is revealed in unexpected, vulnerable and even small ways, like the ways of a child. Instead of mandating social classes, Jesus heals the sick, the lowly and the outcast and then restores them to community. Instead of wearing a crown of jewels, Jesus wears a crown of thorns. Instead of ascending a mighty throne, Jesus ascends the cross. Instead of boasting, “Look how amazing I am!” he points to a baby crawling on the floor and says, “Look how amazing that is!”. He uses stories to illustrate the kingdom of God by using images of small things, like a mustard seed, a precious pearl, a valuable coin.
Julian of Norwich lived in England in the 14th century. She was a religious hermit, a brilliant theologian and a Christian mystic. Her book “Revelations of Divine Love,” written around 1395, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. In contemplating the kingdom of God, she sees a hazelnut as a manifestation of God’s kingdom. She writes, “In my vision, God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut…I looked at it…and thought, “What might this be?” And God answered, “This is everything that I have made.” I wondered how it could possibly last, because it was so small. And God answered, “It will last forever, because I love it.”
Can we, in our smallness, can be assured of God’s abiding love, knowing God is not looking for us to be the best or the prettiest or the smartest or the richest? God doesn’t demand any superlatives of us. God does not require you to be the best, the strongest, the most confident, the most attractive, the biggest. On the contrary, God notices and takes delights in your smallness and my smallness and nothing can change that. However, God can work great and mighty things through us, we who are small…even the smallest mustard seed grows to a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. God can and does work mighty things through us, as well, not because we are the best or the strongest or the wealthiest, but because God’s power and strength work in and through us.
So when Jesus lifts up and small child and says, “This is who inherits my kingdom,” our thoughts turn immediately to our southern border, where immigrant children are living in tents, having been ripped from their parents’ arms. Currently, 12, 800 migrant children are being indefinitely held without a parent or guardian, according to the New York Times in an article on September 12. Think of Jesus lifting up one of these small children, who are displaced, afraid, anxious and depressed and saying, “These ones are first in my kingdom, even though they are very clearly last in your world.” Jesus uses superlatives only when lifting up those who are held down–the least in our eyes are the greatest in his eyes.
If we adjust our vision, we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ fascination with seemingly insignificant things and his ability to see the entire universe unfold in a mustard seed, or in the value of a pearl, or in the joy in a lost coin that is found. These are not merely descriptive illustrations of God’s kingdom; they are in fact examples of it. Ask most new mothers about this, and they will understand; their entire world is contained in the body of a squirming and blinking 8-pound infant. Her baby isn’t just an expression of her love; her child embodies every ounce of her love. Henry David Thoreau experienced a similar fascination as he watched a colony of ants at Walden Pond. He didn’t watch them in a detached sort of way as if on television; instead, he was fascinated by their behaviors and patterns, which he perceived to be also very human. Author Mary Oliver watches a grasshopper and writes, “Instructions for living a life–pay attention. Be astonished. Talk about it.” Julian of Norwich isn’t merely amused by a hazelnut, she recognizes God’s entire cosmos contained in it. Jesus sees a child, and doesn’t just bounce the child on his knee and giggle at its cuteness; rather, he sees the innocence and helplessness and vulnerability to be at the very essence of his kingdom. Just like a mother or father MUST serve the little child because they are unable to do anything for themselves, so, too, does Jesus come to serve the least of these.
So when we encounter a hungry person, a poor person, a lonely person, a grieving person, an immigrant person, an oppressed, we are not amused by these people; Jesus calls us to see in them what he sees in them–value, preciousness, worth…They are not pious hobbies to occupy ourselves with while God’s kingdom unfolds somewhere else, among other people…it is precisely among them and through them that God’s glory is revealed.
Compared to the abuse and misuse of power we see every single day, where the vulnerable are sexually abused, taken away from their parents and left to live in tents, forced into human trafficking, jailed for crimes they did not commit, held in detention unjustly, pushed to beg for food on the streets, driven to live on the streets with undiagnosed and unmanaged mental illness, God’s kingdom radically reverses the order of things and exalts these ones who have been hurt, neglected, abused and mocked and says, “When you encounter one such as these, you are staring directly into my kingdom.”
Two small human eyes, no bigger than a hazelnut, contain the entire universe. Following Jesus’ lead, let us pay attention to the little things, for contained within them are the mysteries of the universe as they unravel. Let the booming voices of ego sound their ridiculous proclamations, let them occupy themselves with the most grandiose, the best and biggest, the pagentry and drama of human production. Let us, instead, look to the smallest, the least, the unexpected, for in these places–often no bigger than a hazelnut–we see the kingdom of God looking right back at us.
“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?