Vulnerability - the way of and to Jesus

Al Cariño
Sept 21, 2003
25th Sunday in Ordinary Times
Reproduced with Permission

In Mk. 9:30-37, we see Jesus bringing the child to center stage when He instructed His disciples thus, "Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Here, Jesus does not ask His disciples to become like little children as He did on another occasion; He asks them to welcome them. Why? Where the disciples having a problem about welcoming littleness?

To answer this question, it will do us good to look at the context in which the admonition was given. For this we have to go back all the way to the Transfiguration when Jesus gave his three apostles a glimpse of His future glory. Then as they were going down the mountain, Jesus charged them not to tell what they had seen to anyone, "except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead" (Mk. 9:9).

In last Sunday's gospel, we saw Jesus rebuke Peter not for confessing that He was the messiah but for his understanding of the messiah as a conqueror who would triumph over Israel's oppressors and would never know suffering or defeat himself. After the rebuke, Jesus said, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise"--the second prediction of His passion and death. He did again as they were entering Jerusalem (Mk. 10:32-34). Why? Because Jesus was anxious that His disciples fully understood what lied ahead of them as He faced His "final hour" in Jerusalem.

Mark then tells us of the reaction of the disciples to all this: though they did not understand what Jesus did, they were afraid to question Him. Why? Perhaps they were afraid to be called "Satan" as Jesus did in rebuking Peter. Or perhaps they were afraid that their worst fears would be confirmed, namely, that Jesus really meant what He said - a prospect the just could not face. If that happened, then goodbye to their expectation of a victorious, non-suffering messiah. The disciples then allowed Jesus to walk ahead of them after which they heatedly discussed among themselves as to who among them would be the greatest in the Kingdom. Really, a ridiculous thing to do under the circumstances. For had not Jesus just told them of His Passion and death which awaited Him in Jerusalem?

Arriving in Capernaum and refusing to tell Jesus what they were discussing on the way, Jesus took a little child, set him in front of them, put His arms around him, and challenged them to welcome the little one. In effect, Jesus was saying that when the disciples would learn to welcome such a little child, then they would also be able to welcome, not the Jesus of their expectation, but the real Jesus, the one who suffered and died precisely for the "little ones".

How could welcoming a little child lead to the welcoming of Jesus and ultimately to the welcoming of the "one who sent me"? In making Himself like that little child - the one who put his trust completely in another, e.g., his parents, and the one who could not resort to the use of power when threatened or maltreated - Jesus showed His disciples that He was going to be just that. His protection would be His Father and His trust would be in the God who would ensure that He would be protected. And as we know, when suffering and death - His "final hour" - did come, He refused to abandon His trust in the Father. He was thus truly vulnerable, as a little child is. Thus unless His disciples could welcome the vulnerability personified in a child which Jesus had made Himself to be as "Son of Man," they would never understand the way of Jesus.

The permanent challenge of Jesus to His followers - then and now - is not only to put their trust in the Father as Jesus did but also to welcome the powerless, to take to heart the weak members of the community. Jesus could issue this challenge because He had already placed Himself in their company: their vulnerability was something that Jesus not only valued but also shared. Jesus wants us not only to do the same but also to offer special hospitality to those from whom we can benefit the least--the little ones.

In drawing His own disciples away from power to vulnerability as the model of discipleship, Jesus invites them to a new openness to the Father. No earthly power could save Jesus from death in Jerusalem: only His Father could save Him from being left for dead. That was the way of the Father with Jesus. That is what Jesus wants us to emulate. If we welcome our vulnerability, then we will be able to welcome the vulnerable Son of Man and in the process welcome the little ones with whom He had identified Himself.