October 4, 2021

Naked Need

 Proper 22 • Advent 2021 • TSH 

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

What does it mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child” in order to enter it? This is a different saying about children, from the one a few weeks back, which was about welcoming children, in Christ’s name. Today is about receiving the kingdom as little children ourselves. So, what does it mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child” in order to enter it? If “little” is the rule, I guess I’m in, no taller than when I was 14, as I never did get the “growth spurt” they promised would come along. But surely Jesus isn’t talking about height. Short people like me have no advantage when it comes to heaven. We don’t even know what’s on top of the refrigerator.

So what is it about children Jesus wants us to copy? Is it their innocence? Well, some children behave as badly as any adult. St Augustine said, if you want proof of original sin, just spend an hour with a crying infant: that child reveals the root of human sin — a constant cry of “I need” and “I want” content only so long as its needs or wants are met.

So, again I ask, what is it about a child that Jesus wants us to copy? Wait a minute — could it be that very neediness and dependency? Could it be that St Augustine missed the point of a child’s needing and wanting — not as signs of sin, but of what it means to be human? One reason human families, across many cultures, are structured as they are is due to the fact that infant humans need lots of care for a long time: human childhood lasts for years. A young horse or cow is up on its feet within minutes of being born; but a human child will take months even to crawl, and many more to toddle or walk. Human children are dependent, and this dependency — this need for care — has shaped human families from the beginning, with not just parents, but often grandparents, aunts, and uncles; as the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The long human childhood is intimately connected with human civilization itself. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching here is like his teaching concerning “the poor” — those in need who are always with you so that you can supply their need, as a good civilization should.

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Not that human civilization is always so civilized. How much over the last few years have we been treated to human inhumanity to fellow humans — to drowning boatloads of refugees seeking escape from the war-torn middle east; children separated from their parents as they seek refuge from murderous threats; children killed in drug-fueled crossfire on our own Baltimore streets? I would like to hope this suffering will not be in vain, and that the hearts of enough people will be moved to do all in their power 

to end these tragedies. But I also know that while people’s hearts are sometimes moved to sympathy, they are rarely moved to action.

Still, I refuse to give up hope. I know that while we all have that needy, self-centered infant deep within us, we also have within us 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. And this, 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 gift, for heaven is a gift that none of us deserves, but which God is prepared to give to any who hold out their hands to receive it, as easily as the Bread of communion is placed upon the palms of our hands.

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Seven hundred ninety-five years ago tomorrow, a little man from the town of Assisi, Italy died. His name was Francis. He came from a wealthy family — his father sold fine fabrics, even more a luxury then than now. Francis was a trendy young man with a taste for the finer things in life; but he experienced a powerful conversion. 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 some they hadn’t given him — for he took several bolts of expensive fabric from his father’s warehouse and gave them to the poor. His father hauled him up before the authorities and complained he was ungrateful. He reminded his son, “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.

Francis went on to embrace a life of complete need: he refused to own anything, and lived as a beggar the rest of his life. He had learned the crucial difference between “I need” and “I want” — that what people need to live is far less than what they want to have. He learned how to receive everything as a gift, to receive as children do — children who receive care and nurture not because they earn it, but purely as a gift, because their family and society provide it.

Francis lived like this all the way to the end. Even as he was dying, frail and sick, he asked a hard thing of his grieving brothers: to strip him naked, and place him on the cold floor of his monastery cell. He wanted to die in complete need, without owning anything at all, not even the clothes on his back: naked as the day he was born, as naked as a new-born child. His Franciscan 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 wounds that Francis had received when he begged God to let him share in Christ’s suffering. His brothers finally convinced him, to let them clothe him in a robe 

they insisted 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 one last gift from 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; being able to be in need, to depend on God in the way we depended on others 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 of 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 not only its own children, but the children of others. Those two sayings of Jesus are tied together after all: we dare not expect to receive the gifts of God as children, if we fail to welcome the needy children of this world, recalling that as we welcome them, we welcome Jesus — all of those many children living in need: the ones towards whom we who have stand in the position of being able to give. +

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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