In February of 1999, Monster.com ran a famous ad in that year’s Superbowl. Perhaps you remember it. It was a bunch of kids answering the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? The answers were a bit telling… “When I grow up, I want to…” “File papers all day…” “Have a brown nose…” “Claw my way up to middle management…” “Be a yes man…” “Be a yes woman…” “Be underappreciated…” “Be forced into early retirement…” And then the tag line, written across the screen, reading: “What do you want to be?” – with the Monsters.com logo displayed. Unspoken was the assumption that, “with us, you don’t have to settle…”
What made the commercial so striking is what it tapped into in our human psyche. We don’t like being unimportant or unnoticed.
Neither did the disciples. And they got caught, right in the act of pretending to be somebody. An argument, a discussion – “who has done the most for Jesus – who’s given up the most, sacrificed the most, laid the most on the line for Jesus”? And therefore, who is going to get the biggest reward, the biggest prize at the end of it all?
Jesus, who was always so alert to what was going on around him, asks, once home: “What are you talking about?” I suspect he was hoping they would ‘man up’ and admit it. But like kids with hands caught in the cookie jar who knew they had no defense, they were silent.
“SIGH!” And so what does Jesus, the teacher do? He gives them his version of the monster.com commercial. “If anyone wants to climb the corporate ladder of the kingdom…” then be ready to do the filing, or the laundry, or the middle management, or taking out the trash, or cutting the lawn, or… That is what it means to be important in the kingdom of heaven.
And then, to make sure they “GOT IT” – Jesus places in their midst a living example of the unimportance they are to strive for. A child. And it is not because the child is a child and kind of cute and adorable, as in the commercial, but because the kid is a NOBODY, a NOTHING. No rights, status, rank, privilege, anything. Though that is a foreign concept to us, even as late as the middle ages Thomas Aquinas instructed people in the Summa Theologica that the order of ‘rescuing people from a burning building was: Father, Mother, Wife and THEN children. They were on the lowest rung. So Jesus says in effect – you must be willing to serve those who are the last and least. That must have given his disciples pause.
It is so difficult to learn that, to trust that, to embrace that way of thinking. If you have watched any of the republican presidential debates, you realize how counter cultural a message it STILL is here in the United States and in most of our world’s history.
I sometimes wonder if we could have some kind of ritual within the Catholic church that would remind us of that. Sort of like the holy water reminds us of our baptism, this ritual, whatever it would look like, would put Jesus’ invitation before us as clearly as that child Jesus put in front of the disciples in his day.
To that end, I do know that in Vienna in Austria there is a church in which the former ruling family in Austria, the Hapsburgs, are buried. When royal funerals used to arrive, the mourners knocked at the door of the church to be allowed in. A priest inside would ask “Who is it that desires admission here?” A guard would call out, “His apostolic majesty, the emperor.” The priest would answer, “I don’t know him.” They would knock a second time, and again the priest would ask who was there. The funeral guard outside would announce, “The highest emperor.” A second time the priest would say, “I don’t know him.” A third time they would knock on the door and the priest would ask “Who is it?” The third time, the answer would return: “A poor sinner, your brother” and the priest would let them in.
When all is said and done, God will not ask how important we were, how many companies we led, or even if we ‘clawed our way up to middle management, or lived with a brown nose.” Rather, he will ask simply: “Did you serve every last, least and lost one of my brothers and sisters with all you had and all hoped to be…”