Last week we heard Jesus tell his disciples that if they wished to be first or greatest, they had to be last or least. I think I can say that all of us would find that a hard lesson to live out. We are, by our very nature, wired to succeed. The drive to be great is deeply ingrained in the human condition. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to it as a “desiderium naturale.” Every living thing wants to persist and expand.
So when the disciples come upon people who are expelling demons using the name of Jesus, they immediately perceive it as a threat. Someone is poaching on their territory. Their natural instinct is to guard their turf. If they are going to use Jesus’ name, then they should join their group. The fact that these people are doing the work of the kingdom and that a portion of humanity has been freed from bondage does not enter into the equation. The apostles have become a tight-knit power group with Jesus as the leader.
Jesus, however, has a different perspective. The ultimate priority is the advancement of the Kingdom of God, not their little kingdoms. Referring to the outsiders as “little ones,” Jesus reminds them that any act that furthers the kingdom of God, even the act of giving a person a drink of cold water, should be welcomed and included. Instead of guarding their personal roles as apostles and disciples, they should be seeking to bring in all who work for the freedom of humanity from the bondage of sin.
The apostles are not the first nor will they be the last to react to others in this way. St. Thomas’ assertion that every living things wants to persist and expand is true of all creation. In plants and animals, this drive stays on the biological level. In humans, it becomes more complex and wide ranging. Not only do we want to biologically survive, we want to be important and esteemed, the center of attention and adulation.
This inner urge determines how we evaluate our lives. We weigh everything in terms of whether it promotes or diminishes us. Then we attach our happiness to promoting experiences and our sadness to diminishing experiences. The desire to be great takes the form of pursuing promotion and avoiding diminishment. These twin cravings, often unconscious, steer the course of our lives on a day-in, day-out basis.
The pursuit of power, wealth, and status are all part of our desire to be great. Jesus asks us to let go of the power, to share our wealth and to eschew any sense of status. Rather we are to seek to be least even though it is completely contrary to our human nature.
The saints teach us something about this. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Therese of Liseaux, the Little Flower. She sought holiness through little things and teaches her devotees to practice her little way of life. Thursday is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Poverello – the little poor man. Born into a life of wealth, he stripped himself of all possessions and asked his followers to do the same. St. Teresa of Calcutta left her religious congregation and decided to live out her life by taking care of the poor people who littered the streets of India. St. Thomas a Becket, a confidant of King Henry II, when ordained the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave away all his possessions to the poor and no longer sought the status that the royal court could provide.
These are heroic examples. In each case, these men and women chose to be the least and became the greatest. Their names are remembered by all of us. No one would have known Francesco Bernardone if he had become a wealthy merchant like his father. No one would have known Agnes Gonxhe if she had remained an English teacher as a Sisters of Loretto. Thomas a Becket would have faded into the long history of England as a one-time chancellor if he had not become a saintly martyr. Marie-Francois Martin would be unknown today had she not espoused the “Little Way” of holiness.
How are we called to be the least? Each of us must find our own way. Each of us must look upon the crucifix that hangs in our homes and look for ways to push back against the desire to flourish and expand in wealth and power and notoriety. Easy? Not at all. That is why Jesus asks us to take the “narrow path” to heaven.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.