Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Naked Need

Learning the difference between "I need" and "I want..."

October 4 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Today we hear the second saying of Jesus concerning children and the kingdom of heaven, to which I referred a few weeks back. This is the one that is better known, the one of which people most often think, when they think about this subject at all. Jesus wants his disciples to receive the kingdom of God like children in order to enter the kingdom.

But what does it actually mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child?” If “little” is the most important part of it, I guess I am half-way there, tall as I was when I was 14, as I never did experience the “growth spurt” they kept promising me would come along. But I don’t think that Jesus is giving much weight to physical size, so let’s set that aside for a moment. Whatever Randy Newman may have thought about short people with their little tiny hands and little tiny legs, we who are short have just as much of a challenge in receiving the kingdom as our larger companions. It is no more easy for me to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel — or a rich man.

So what is it about children that Jesus wants us to emulate and embody? If not their physical size, is it their innocence? I don’t know about your experience of children, but I’ve known some children who behave as badly as any adult. St Augustine once observed that anyone who doubted the existence of original sin only need spend an hour in the presence of a crying infant: for Augustine, the crying child revealed the naked self-centeredness of all that it means to be a sinful human being — a center of “I need” and “I want” with no patience or care in the world so long as its needs or its wants are met.

And surely it is true that children can be selfish, possessive, dishonest, demanding, mean, cruel, and angry. The person who said “It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby” likely never actually experienced the wrath of a child so deprived — and God save your eardrums!

So, again I ask, what is it about a child that Jesus wants us to emulate? Could it be that very neediness and dependency? Could it be that St Augustine missed the point of a child’s dependency — not as a sign of sin, but of what it means to be human? Scientists tell us that one of the reasons the human family came to be — including the general favoring throughout most human cultures of monogamy, to which Jesus also refers in our reading today — that this is due to the fact that infant humans require lots of care for a long time: human childhood lasts for years. A young horse or a cow will be up on its feet within minutes of being born; but a human child will take months even to crawl, and more to toddle or walk. Human children are dependent for years on end, and this dependency has shaped the form of human families from the very beginning, including the need of a settled home for the upbringing of the child; or even more, as the saying has it, that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The long childhood of human children is both source and result of human society and civilization.

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Not that all human civilization is always civilized. A few weeks ago, the world was moved by the pictures of a little child dead on a beach — a child who drowned in his family’s efforts as refugees to find escape from a war-torn middle east. I would like to hope — and I still do hope — that this child’s death will not be in vain, and that the hearts of enough people will be moved to do all in their power to end this tragic crisis. But, sadly, as with the challenges around gun control, I know human beings are sometimes moved by tragedies, but rarely moved to action.

Still, I refuse to give up hope entirely. I know that while we all have that needy, crying, self-centered infant deep within us, we also have within the capacity to transform our need, not by losing it, but by presenting it to the one who can and will supply all of our needs. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a child — to receive it as a child receives a present, for surely heaven is a gift that none of us deserves, but which our Lord is prepared to give to each and every one who holds out their hands to receive it. It is not that we should give up our neediness, but that we should realize that there is one who can supply all we need; one who is ready to do so — to place his gift of salvation into our hands as easily as the Bread of communion is placed upon our palms or on our tongues.

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Seven hundred eighty-nine years ago today, a man from Assisi, Italy died. His name was Francis. He came from a well-to-do merchant family — his father sold cloth, which in those days before modern technology was far more of a luxury than it is for us today. Francis was a trendy young man with a taste for the finer things in life; but he experienced a conversion that is among the most powerful ever experienced by a human being. He did a complete turnaround and rejected all that he had, all that his family wanted for him, all that they had given him; even what they hadn’t given him — for he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s shop and gave them to the poor. His father hauled him up before the local bishop and complained he was ungrateful and wasting the family fortune, reminding the boy, “You owe me everything!” In a dramatic gesture, Francis called his father’s bluff and said, “You want everything? It’s yours!” and he stripped himself bare naked right there in the town square.

It may seem a bit odd to make the comparison, but Francis took on voluntarily the poverty that the good man Job suffered at the hands of Satan. Our reading today omits the verse, but it is fitting: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” As Job also says, in our reading today, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Francis knew how to receive the good and the bad because he embraced a life of complete poverty, of complete need: he refused to own anything, and he lived as a beggar his whole life. He learned the crucial difference between “I need” and “I want.” In this he learned the secret of how to receive the kingdom as a child — he learned that what people need to live is far less than what they want to have. He learned how to be a child his whole life — a child who receives care and nurture not because she has earned it, but purely as a gift and because her parents and her society provide for that need.

He took it all the way, Francis, all the way to the end. Even as he was dying, he asked his brothers to let him strip himself naked once again, one last time, and to be placed upon the cold, dirt floor of his cell, on the ground, naked, so that he could die without any belongings at all, not even the clothes on his back: naked as he came from his mother’s womb, as naked as a new-born child. His brothers could not bear this for long, seeing that miserable, shrunken body — marked as it was in hands and feet and side with the miraculous gift of the wounds of Christ that he had received as a gift from God! — and they convinced him finally, at the last, that the robe in which they insisted he be clothed was only on loan, and didn’t belong to him. And so he died, in borrowed clothes, receiving Sister Death as he had received life — not as his own, but as something given by God.

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The New English Bible translates one of Jesus’ beatitudes as “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Is this what it means to receive the kingdom as a child — a child who needs everything, and who can do nothing for itself? It seems to me that is a large part of it — being able to be in need, to be dependent upon God in the way we were dependent on our family when we were infants. Perhaps it is the family of humanity that needs better to learn how to care for children, so that all can learn what it means to be a child — a child of God and humanity — as Jesus himself is Son of God and Son of Man.

It is said that a society can be judged on the way it treats its children. I will go further and say that our society, and our world, will be judged on the basis of the way it treats not only its own children, but the children of others, the ones seeking asylum and refuge, the ones towards whom we who have stand in the position of being able to give, and to save. We need to learn that powerful difference between what we need to live as opposed to what we want to have. We don’t need everything we want. And what we have we can share with those who do not have. We dare not expect one day to receive the kingdom as a child, if we turn away the children who seek our help here and now, on God’s green earth, and be unwilling to share. Let us all, like Francis, give up the claim, and accept the gift, from the one who knows our needs before we ask, and gives us better than we deserve.+

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