This week’s gospel follows last week’s gospel, and we need to read them together. When we do read them together, they have something to say to our society and how we talk to each other. In particular, there are lessons on the temptation of ideology. But what is the link?
Last week, you’ll remember, we had the disciples arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus had to point out that this had nothing to do with the gospel. The focus on one’s power was a focus on oneself. The focus on importance and prestige was fundamentally egocentric. It had nothing to do with love of God nor love of one’s neighbour.
Jesus made this point in two ways. First he said, the point was service, not being served. Second, he put in front of the disciples a child, someone whose voice was socially unimportant. Jesus told his disciples that such a one must be welcomed and received as you would the Christ of God. The other person’s smallness could be the voice of God, just as Elijah heard God not in the fire, and for us not in the earthquake, but in the whisper.
This week the argument moves on a bit. Instead of who amongst the disciples is most important, now it is the importance of the disciples as a group. This is a good illustration of what the English philosopher Iris Murdoch called ‘the fat, relentless ego’. Even after Jesus has just told them to focus on serving, the disciples cannot help but still think about their own position. They do the job, not other people. They therefore are thinking about themselves, rather than getting the job done. Their focus is still off.
In this, we can see the temptation to ideology. Ideology is the privileging of a theory over people, whether that theory be about the present, the future or how to get from one to the other. It is the reversal of truth. Ideology says: reality must adapt to me, rather than me adapt to reality.
However, we must be careful here. The word ‘reality’ itself often is a front for ideology. People often tell the church to face up to ‘reality’; that church teaching is on the wrong side of history; that ‘reality’ has moved on. This is not what I mean by reality. And this clearly not what Jesus means in today’s gospel.
When Jesus criticises the disciples for creating a clique, his solution is to tell them to get out of the way of the little ones coming to God. Anyone who gets in the way is in a lot of trouble.
I think I have told this anecdote before, but when I was going through the seminary, I spent most of my time trying to put it all together. I did not want to be one of the pious idiots who didn’t understand what he was talking about. Every assessment was another opportunity to grasp the whole. Providentially for me, however, there was always a pastoral placement at the same time – a school, a soup kitchen, a palliative care hospice – at which God placed someone who would ask a question that sunk my theory. Every single time.
And I still remember the fundamental choice that confronted me in each moment – bulldoze the person in front of me with theory and rhetoric, or take the loss and thereby take the win. Take the loss by recognising the other person in front of me, recognise the truth of what was being said, and so take the win of recognising the invitation that Christ the Truth was making to me right in that moment. The choice was between ideas or people. And any idea that denies the sanctity of the person is false. We hear the upshot of getting this wrong in our second reading. The more we choose ideology, the less we recognise humanity. And the less we recognise humanity, the less human we make ourselves. It is a choice between heaven and hell, between worship of the one true God and the practise of idolatry, the worship of a god of my own making, one destined to destroy me.
This is the seriousness of what Jesus is saying. To welcome one as Christ one must stop sinning. To recognise one who is doing the work of God one must stop sinning.
And we have to be careful here not to fall into the same trap. I don’t get to determine what constitutes sin. God alone can do that. I am accountable to God like anyone else. There is no privileged position before God. I must proclaim and be judged by the Good News like anyone else. I don’t get to change what the church teaches. If I do, then I am doing precisely what Jesus is warning against. I am leading God’s little ones astray and I am in real trouble.
Let’s pray then to become transparent for God’s word. May we purify ourselves of ego and everything that blinds us to God’s grace and to our mission. May our awareness of our own failings and needs for God’s forgiveness increase our humility, better both to spot Christ whom we must welcome and those who are doing God’s work in ways we did not expect.