One inescapable feature of my visits to my mum in Poland is my involuntary exposure to adverts. Every single radio station and TV channel broadcasts them. Some adverts are clever, funny and creative; most of them, however, are dull or silly. What all of them have in common, though, is the vision of easy solutions and a trouble-free life. For that reason, I call them ‘postcards from dreamland.’ Have you noticed that adverts almost never mention any downsides or side-effects of the deal? We’d all like to think that we are immune to the power of adverts. But there’s no shortage of those who fall for these ‘half-truths’, only discovering the existence of the unpleasant ‘half-truth’ after having concluded the deal. Victims of the likes of Wonga are among of the most extreme examples of those falling into the attractive but deadly trap of sleek adverts. Many more are quietly bearing the consequences of their bad deals. Part of the problem for us is lack of knowledge, mercilessly exploited by companies selling us their services and products.
In that respect, Jesus is a very bad salesman! In today’s gospel he presents the extremely unattractive prospect regarding his future. So unattractive is it, that his followers cannot understand it; they don’t dare to ask him to elaborate and effectively they decide to ignore it. Jesus’ presentation is completely at odds with their own plans to make Israel great again; they carry on regardless, and it’s not long before they have an almighty row among themselves about their status and prominence within their dreamed-of government. If all this sounds rather familiar, it’s because we haven’t changed that much over the centuries. Pettiness and self-regard seem to be our perennial driving forces. Jesus explains the meaning of true leadership to his disciples: ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’ I guess his words must have fallen on deaf ears; Jesus must have seen incredulity in their eyes. So, to illustrate his teaching, Jesus summons a little child.
To understand the significance of Jesus’ action here, we have to put it into context. Children have always been among the most vulnerable of human beings, exposed as they are to possible harm, exploitation and abuse at the hands of others. We recall the utterly despicable scandals of child abuse within the Church that deserve absolute condemnation. The world outside the Church also seems to be getting worse, with new ways of exploitation being provided inadvertently by digital technology. In the time of Jesus, children had virtually no protection and no legal status. So, when Jesus summons a little child and tells his followers: ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children welcomes me’ the Apostles must have been shocked. In their minds, there were no gains to be made out of caring for the most vulnerable, most uninfluential in society, as symbolised by the child.
As the Church we have learnt the lesson of historic child abuse scandals. We have strict policies on protecting children and vulnerable people, and we try to do everything possible to protect them from harm. Those policies and regulations play a very important role in the life of the Church. But far, far more important are our own attitudes, shaped and driven by taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. He summed it up concisely when he declared: ‘I am here to serve, not to be served.’ As his followers, each one of us must adopt this attitude as our own.