[Homily: Assumption Chapel, 30 Sept. 2019]
Our Gospel for today brings us to a scene where the disciples of Jesus were quarreling over who was the greatest. Among the disciples were fishermen and tax collectors: they were small people or people despised for working for the Roman occupiers of the land. It would be interesting to imagine what their arguments for greatness were: their dedication to the cause of the Master, their willingness to fight for whatever the Master would lead them to fight for, their willingness to work, their ability to bring in fish for meals, their ability to handle money, their dedication to the Master personally, their affection and love for him.
Jesus is probably amused by their quarreling. So he proposes to them a definition of greatness. “It is the least among you, who is the greatest” (Lk 9:48), he says. And with that he may be talking to us, commenting on the way we follow the Lord. Because of all the great things that we do, because of how we pray constantly, because of how we go to Mass each day, because of all the work we do, or of all the problems we solve, or of all the grand causes we champion, we think we’re pretty great, and that the Lord should be grateful that we are on his side. We’re sometimes even a bit disappointed that people around us don’t seem to notice all that we do. But the Lord today is saying, “It’s not about you, silly!” The least among you is the greatest.
With this he is not saying, the person among you who has done least, or has achieved least, or has done nothing for his needy sisters and brothers, or has been a failure, is the greatest. We can recall that for Jesus salvation depends on doing: “Whatever you have done or not done for one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, that you have done for me,” he said in the Last Judgment passage of St. Matthew (cf. 25:40.45). We can also recall the words of St. James: “If a brother or sister is naked and hungry for the day’s food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, of what good is that? Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Ja. 2:15-17).
Jesus says, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me” (Lk 9:48). The greatest among you is the least because you are able to receive this child and such as this child in my name. In the name of Jesus, you receive this child in all its vulnerability, neediness and lovability. You respond to this child as Jesus would: with care, with affection, with love. In so responding, you respond to Jesus. Recall his words in Matthew: “Whatever you do to one of these the least of my sisters and brothers, that you do to me” (Mt. 25:40). Here, Jesus says, “Whoever receives this child, receives me. Whoever receives me, receives him who sent me.”
This child stands for the vulnerable, the ignorant, the weak, the discarded, the unloved, those who are sick and needy, those who are victims of violence and war. Respond to this child whom Jesus loves, through your teaching, research and commitment to social justice, and you respond to Jesus, you receive Jesus, as you receive the Father.
Respond to this needy child in Jesus’s name, and you participate in the Father’s love and compassion for people in this world as you participate in Jesus work of expressing his Father’s love.
So when we quarrel about whom among us is the greatest, we may recall, It’s not about us, but about Jesus. It’s not about us, but about God. That was the central message of GC 36, and its call to conversion. It’s not about all we do, whether we be Jesuits or laypersons, but about what God does. Conversion means, we turn back to him. He must increase, we must decrease (cf. Jn 3:30). In this sense, whoever is the least, is the greatest.