BIG LITTLE MEN Mini-Series on Discipleship, No.5

BIG LITTLE MEN Mini-Series on Discipleship, No.5


October 18, 2009

Mk 10, 35-45

BIG LITTLE MEN mini-series on discipleship, no.5

There is one more trait of the ‘child’ disciple of Jesus that needs unpacking…

Mark often presents the core theme, ‘being a servant’, being a ‘child’, as a huge demand. Some could read it as a recommendation to drop out from public life as we know it and even condemn it. If you ask people to be as children, you might be thought to exploit them, not serve them. You might be making them unduly passive when action is appropriate.

But I want today to suggest another way of reading the key point of the Markan gospel. I want to suggest a way of integrating the passive and the active dimensions of a genuine life. I want to read the call to be ‘child’ as a call to humans to serve the development of each and every one and thus also serve the development of God’s work among us.

The motif of ‘become the least’ implies the virtue of humility. I want to talk about the need to balance the virtue of humility (become the least) with the virtue of magnanimity (be big-souled). There is a sense in which it is all right to want to be great, indeed there is a sense in which it is required of us. ‘If you want to be great, be little…’ ‘If you want to be little, you will need to be great too…’ ‘Be child’. ‘Be perfect…’ There is a both/and here, a synthesis of seeming opposites. The gospel does not want us all to be so humbly servant-like and child-like that nothing happens for anyone anywhere. The gospel is not advocating mediocrity all round. We are rather called to develop our own competence to the highest level, and then put that competence at the service (literally) of others, especially the poor and those who most need that competence.

The problem here is how: how to integrate the virtue of humility with the virtue of magnanimity. It is interesting, immediately, that the word ‘humility’ is much more familiar to people now than the word ‘magnanimity’. Humility was originally seen as a ‘monkish’ virtue just for monks in a monastery, away from the ‘real’ world. It was regarded as socially and politically useless, and indeed more of a vice than a virtue from a truly ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ perspective. Humility was not just something that went along with magnanimity, it destroyed magnanimity. Magnanimity meant high-mindedness, and humility meant low-mindedness. They contradicted each other. Humility was the really harmful one of these two. Monks used to write treatises on the steps or ladder of humility. Now we get in the popular literature all sorts of books on the stages of self-development.

But humility does not mean self-depreciation. No matter how humble we try to be, we still have spirited (‘irascible’) energies. Thank God we do, but they need some kind of moderation. If we are to aspire to our own proper and proportionate excellence (magnanimity) we need the help of humility, to open up the space for our genuine development. Note: magnanimity is actually more primary than humility. Humility is just a brake on some inappropriate ways of being magnanimous. Don’t think the primary thing is humility, with some allowance for being magnanimous occasionally.

Humility looks primarily to God. It is basically a religious attitude. It says, in comparison with God, we are very little people indeed. It reminds us that everything good in us comes from God, not radically from ourselves. It insists that all good in us is gift from God. In this way it locates us in our true place in the universe. It gives us the calm needed to contribute to the justice and peace of the universe. It is the twin, not the adversary, of magnanimity.

Prepared for by - and in tandem with - humility, magnanimity sets our sights on big things. Its Greek root is megalopsychia – grand psyched ness. It arouses and nurtures hope. While humility tells all of us that God is greater than all of us, magnanimity tells us that while we may not be the greatest member of the human race, we have something to contribute that no other member of the human race can do.

In today’s Gospel passage, from Mark, we have the best one-line description of the whole life and meaning of Jesus. It reads best in the original Greek. Mark has Jesus say that he did come to be served but to serve, and adds ‘and to give his psyche as assurance for the hoi polloi (the unnamed and forgotten people)’.

The most significant expression of magnanimity (tempered by humility) in our time comes from Eastern Europe. Dissenters have arisen within the former Soviet Union. They have been courageous enough, and prophetic enough, to demand in the name of human beings what is right and due for all human beings, especially for those oppressed by the state. And they have been heard. I am thinking of Havel, of Sakarov, of Solzhenitzen, of Patacka, etc.

In this way we can find a balance that is sometimes lacking in writers about ‘self-emptying’ (kenosis). It is found in certain Christian traditions that highlight atonement for sin. There are some Protestant (mainly Lutheran) groups in my mind here, and some from the Eastern churches, and of course some within almost every strand of Catholicism. It is found in certain philosophies and spiritualities – no real progress comes except via overcoming the self. It is a kind of preference for autumn and winter over spring and summer! It lives in darkness about God, and sees a challenge to live in the crucifiedness of everything…

In contrast, I want to ask you to think about the radical positivity of everything. God created everything and everyone in relationship with God, and that is not emptiness. We need to be grateful not refusing of it. Yes, history and society have caused damage to the original ‘child’, but damage it is, not radical deconstruction. I think the Jesus of Mark is asking us to be ‘child’ in that sense.

Let me pause, and look back over the reflections of the last few weeks on this theme… We have looked at traits of the ‘child’

  • transparent inadequacy
  • beyond paranoia
  • complementarity
  • following
  • being big and little

Being a child like that is not opposed to a theology of the cross. It’s just looking at the real cross, not an imaginary one!