That was a long gospel—and lots of moving parts: there is the disciples asking about greatness, then there is the small child, then there are the hands and feet and eyes which you thought you needed but you don’t. Then there are all the little ones with their guardian angels, the one lost sheep with his shepherd, brothers who are willing to act like brothers, and some more brothers—just two or three—huddled together in the name of Jesus.
So if you will allow me to simplify, what we have today is a gospel about the foolish and the small, the handicapped, the despised and the lost, the sinful and the few. We have a gospel about all our limitations, in which Jesus exposes all of the things that you, and I, would rather hide (would naturally rather not deal with or talk about or even see).
We would rather hide the fact that we aren’t that strong or smart or driven, that we don’t actually have it all figured out, that we are jealous and selfish and foolish. Because we know, just like the disciples knew, that what everyone cares about is who is the greatest, who is limitless (bigger, faster, more clever, more generous), who has it all together.
Now there is nothing wrong with (having things together, with) doing well, with being good at something, and certainly not with being virtuous, kind, content. But the fact is, by nature you are not these things. You are limited, sinful, not what you could be. And that (in the end) is the fact we are desperate to hide: that we are sinners and that we are less-than. And frankly, we are rather good at hiding it these days, even from ourselves. I must warn you, this is not a good thing to be good at.
There was an article on FirstThings.com last month by J.D. Flynn. He wrote, “Last month our family realized that we were not welcome in the French Republic.” The reason, as he explains, is that the French government recently banned a television commercial about the lives of people with Down syndrome. Mr. Flynn is father to two children with Down syndrome, which—in places like France and Iceland and of course our own country—is enough of a reason to take the life of an unborn child. The French Supreme Court ruled that seeing people with Down syndrome on television may cause guilt for those who had done something which is perfectly legal, and therefore upheld the ban.
Again, our gospel today is about all our limitations, and we all, by nature, want desperately to hide our limitations—even hide entire classes of people who’s limitations are especially obvious. Mr. Flynn closes his article with this:
“Icelanders are right: Disabled people often do suffer. The French are right: The disabled are often a burden. Sometimes that burden feels overwhelming. Parenting disabled children is not a saccharine or sentimental experience. Neither is welcoming them into a community. The intellectually disabled are often demanding and dependent. They can be exhausting.
“But we can all be exhausting. We can all be demanding. We all must depend on someone. The difference is how well we think we hide it. The visible weaknesses of the intellectually disabled hold up a mirror to the weaknesses most of us try so hard to hide.
So the problem with you and me, according to Mr. Flynn, what makes us do even unthinkable things, is that we are trying to hide our own limitations. We don’t wan’t to be seen as foolish or small, handicapped or lost or despised, or sinful.
And this is where Jesus is so very, very different. I wonder if you noticed when we were reading today about the child in the midst, about the scandalized, the tempted, and the despised, that we may as well have been talking about Jesus himself. After all, Jesus’ entire mission and purpose was to become limited. The limitless God was to become a babe in a manger, and then a man of sorrows, and then even less than that, dying the death of a slave. Limited. Foolish and small; handicapped, despised, and even sinful.
That is what he became. And all this he does out in the open, for all the world and all history to see—he doesn’t hide—so that you can be very clear that these people, the foolish, small, handicapped, despised and even sinful people are Jesus’ people. That would be you; that would be me; that would be French and Icelandic and American people and all the people who are sure he can’t possibly mean them. He does.
And so Jesus gives a dazzling solution: don’t hide, come. Don’t hide your sins, confess them, right here, like we just did, and Jesus will take them, all of them, no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve done it to (even an unborn child). And then he will pull you close and set you right in the middle of this gospel (which is about the small, the scandalized, the despised and all the sinners), so you can learn to get caught up in the life of Jesus—his limitations: his comforting word, the holy touch of his sacraments, his benediction.
That’s what he says today to all his disciples, to those he has pulled close: learn to act like a child, spending all your time looking up to Jesus. Learn to see life this way: if you have Him, you could do without anything else, even your own right arm. Learn to be dependent, like you need a guardian angel just to get through. And learn to be the sort of brother, or sister, who cannot bear to have any sin, any hurt, any grievance, come between you and any other brother or sister in the church. Learn to gather together, even if only with two or three, in the name of Jesus.
In other words, learn to embrace your limitations and learn to embrace those of others. Perhaps God simply wants you to need each other. Learn to embrace that God has given you these skills and abilities, and not those, or that he may have taken something from you, made you dependent in this or that way. Embrace that he has given you one family: your parents, your siblings, your children, your spouse. Embrace that he has limited you to this place, this church, and these brothers and sisters to gather together with and to hold on to. Learn to embrace these limitations, because in the Jesus’ kingdom—the kingdom of the Limited One—they are exactly what make you forgiven, and holy, and truly great.