Several years ago, a group of us were given permission to hunt on a rather large ranch, most of which was high mountain country, and served as summer grazing for cattle. The ranchers had rounded up their cattle and moved them to lower pasture for the winter, but came up short six cows. They asked us to keep an eye out for them as we hunted the property. Sure enough, one day while glassing some of the higher elevations looking for bighorn sheep, there they were – the cows. Talk about being lost! But, they were happy as can be, and quite reluctant to leave their little slice of heaven as we herded them back to lower ground for retrieval by the rancher.
These six cows represented a fair sum of money to the rancher – they were quite valuable to him.
In today’s Gospel (Matthew 18:1-14) the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus invites a small child to join them, telling the disciples that those who are humble – as a child – are the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Greatness in God’s kingdom is considerably different that a worldly definition of greatness. A child in biblical times was in many ways considered insignificant. Unless we are willing to become as humble as a child, we will fail to achieve the greatness of God’s kingdom – and even more striking – we will not even qualify to enter the Kingdom of heaven!
Humility and the ability to carry out our discipleship of loving service without drawing attention to our selves marks us as the ‘little ones’ who are worthy of God’s Kingdom. At the same time, Jesus tells his disciples today that whoever receives a child receives him. Jesus also says that we are not to despise any of these ‘little ones;’ those who are serving Christ. Just as the disciples vied with one another for privilege, so today, just about every parish has its share of senseless (or even insensitive) bickering or turf protection so that one person or one group may be seen as more important, or their devotion or ministry should have greater priority than others.
“Unless you turn (conversion!) and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Then, Jesus tells a story about a lost sheep, indicating that even when a ‘little one’ is lost, it is still very precious in God’s eyes – still has value. So precious to God are even the lost, that as a Good Shepherd, he is willing to leave the flock behind in order to bring back the one that is lost. The lesson for us is that when a member of the faith community has lost his or her way, we are not to further isolate them with judgements or condemnation. Rather, we are to follow the example of Christ, who came into the world in search of all of humanity who had lost its way, to bring us back to our rightful place in God’s family.
Who of us has not been lost? Who of us has not experienced being sought by the Lord? Who of us does not know how precious we are to God?! These various individual experiences keep us humble. Our encounter with Jesus makes us capable of and willing to go into the world to help others know their inestimable value; how precious they are to God.
Today is the memorial of Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who died at Auschwitz in 1942. Her faith journey took her from birth into a Jewish family, to a period of life as a professed atheist, to the discovery of the truth of God which led her to the Catholic Church. Her conversion eventually led her to become a Carmelite nun, and she eventually gave her life in the death camp of Auschwitz for the salvation of souls. St. Teresa Benedicta discovered the ‘little way’ of humility, at the same time knowing the demands of being a ‘little one’ for Christ, and hers is now for all eternity living in the greatness of God’s Kingdom!