Let’s Talk About It

Martin Buber, author of ‘I and Thou’. Image is in the public domain.

Mark 9:30-37

Today, I would like to talk about it.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while.  Maybe it’s been on your mind too.  It goes without saying that I think it’s important.  In fact, it’s probably the kind of thing that we should have brought up sooner than we have.  What is it?  Well, I’ll tell you what it is.  In fact, I’m already telling you what it is.  I’m talking about it right now.  Do you get it?

It.

It is a big word.  It is not very long, but it has a lot of meaning packed into itself.  The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says that there are two ways in which you can relate to a being in the world (i.e. a person, life form, thing, etc.): you can relate to any being as an It or as a You.

When we choose to relate to something (or someone) as an It, we objectify that being.  In other words, we treat it like an object to be used.  Objects have value.  They are worth something.  Their value is often based on their function (i.e. what they can do).  My car has value based on its ability to take me from point A to point B efficiently and comfortably.  We make use of objects as means to an end.  When a particular object has outlived its functionality, it is either fixed or thrown away and replaced.

When, on the other hand, we choose to relate to something (or someone) as a You, we personalize that being.  A person doesn’t have value or worth.  A person has dignity.  You can’t put a price on a person’s life.  A person is literally priceless.  A person is not an object to be used.  A person can never be used as a means to an end.  As the philosopher Immanuel Kant has famously said, each and every person is an end in himself (or herself).  When a person’s life or existence comes to an end, that person is mourned.  He or she can never be replaced.

I begin today by talking about the word it because of the place this word holds in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel.  The scene begins as so many of them do, with the disciples competing, posturing, backbiting, one-upping, gossiping, and generally showing off amongst themselves.  “Who is the greatest?” they ask each other.  “Who among us is Jesus’ favorite?”  “Which one of us has the truest and best interpretation of Jesus’ teachings?”  When I read this, I think about our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), as it is currently in the process of ripping itself in two over the issue of homosexuality.  Each side in this debate claims to have a monopoly on God’s truth and the only legitimate interpretation of Scripture.  Behind this bitter argument, I feel like I can still hear the echoes of Jesus’ disciples fight amongst themselves over who is the greatest.  As usual, the disciples’ self-centered argument blinds them from seeing what Jesus is showing them about God, themselves, and reality.  They can’t see the forest for the trees.

Cue Jesus.  How does Jesus respond to this latest display of religious ridiculousness?  He turns their idea of greatness on its head by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  What happens next is even more interesting.  We the readers encounter that big-little word: It.  The text tells us that Jesus, “took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”

Most of us will be familiar with this story of the child from Sunday school.  Many of us who grew up going to church remember singing songs like Jesus loves the little children of the world and looking at pictures of a kind and smiling Jesus, playing with children, holding them in his arms, and resting them on his knee.  We tend to filter these gospels scenes through our own idealized images of childhood as a time of innocence and playfulness.  In first century Palestine, they had no such illusions.  In that world, they had a 30% infant mortality rate.  Of those who survived, 30% were dead by the age of five and 60% by the age of fifteen.  For folks in that culture, childhood was a time of danger.  Children were vulnerable.  For parents, children were necessary but uncertain investments.  Children just didn’t matter to people in that society because they were little more than a drain on family resources until they reached young adulthood.

A child then, in that society, was no more than an It.  It was a vulnerable liability.  Jesus, when he wanted to turn his disciples’ preconceived notions of power and greatness upside down, held up a child as the symbol of the divine presence in their midst, not because he thought children were cute and innocent, but because he knew they were vulnerable.  Jesus looked past the It and saw the You in the ones who matter least.  Doing so, he taught his followers, is the key to seeing and serving God in this world.

Today, two thousand years later, it seems that we are still learning this lesson from Jesus.  We still have an innate tendency mistake a You for an It, to treat a person like an object.  How many times have we heard scorned lovers cry, “I feel so used” or “Such-and-such a person used me”?  How often do we hear powerful and successful people say things like “It is not my problem” or “It is not my responsibility” in relation to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society?  If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, if we want to take Jesus’ words seriously, then we have to agree with him that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is the fundamental principle underlying all Christian ethics.  This is where the It becomes a You.  Martin Buber said, “In every You we address the eternal You”, which is God.  The Bible tells us in 1 John 4:16, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Whenever we flawed and finite mortals find it in our little hearts to love in the slightest degree, we touch the very face of God.  In that moment when an It object becomes a You person in our eyes, the veil between heaven and earth is rent asunder and eternity comes pouring into our lives.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Whenever we choose to love another in whatever small way we can, we make a little heaven on earth in that moment.

Another important word that Jesus mentions in this passage is ‘welcome’.  He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  This idea of welcoming has to do with the Middle Eastern customs of hospitality.  We North Americans have a very watered-down idea of what hospitality is all about.  We think it’s all about making polite small talk over coffee and setting out fresh towels with clean sheets.  Most of us tend to measure ourselves by the standard of “hostess-ness” set by Martha Stewart’s TV show.  But hospitality in the ancient world had little to do with Martha Stewart.  Remember that they had no cell phones or AAA service.  There wasn’t even a regular police force to keep people safe on the open road.  Strangers in a foreign city had no guarantee that their basic human rights would be respected by the citizens of that town.  This was a universal fear for all travelers.  As a result, their culture developed the custom of hospitality as a religious obligation, if not a legal one.  Hospitality, in this sense of the word, has to do with one’s duty to offer provision and protection to traveling strangers.  Welcoming someone meant that you were taking personal responsibility for that person’s life.  This is what Jesus meant when he said “welcome”.

When Jesus was first teaching this spiritual principle to his disciples, he used children as his example of overlooked and vulnerable people who often get treated as Its instead of Yous.  Who, in our society, would fit that description today?  It’s easy for us to see how elderly and permanently disabled people would count as overlooked and vulnerable.  Most folks would probably extend that definition to include combat veterans, laid off workers, and other examples of people who count as the “worthy” or “deserving” poor.  But what about those who our society labels as the “undeserving” poor?  I’m thinking of people like convicts, drug addicts, and panhandlers.  It’s easy to feel justified in treating them like Its instead of Yous because of the damage they have done to themselves and others.  However, Jesus doesn’t seem to make that kind of distinction in his ministry.  He listed prisoners among those who require care and compassion in God’s name.  He was infamous for extending hospitality toward self-destructive outcasts and rejects.  Whether they deserved it or not, Jesus treated each one of them like a You instead of an It.

How about yourself?  How do you fit into this grand scheme of deserving and undeserving people?  How often do you feel vulnerable or overlooked?  Where and when have you been treated like an It instead of a You?  My guess is that we do this to ourselves on a regular basis.  We objectify ourselves whenever we measure the quality of our lives against some outside standard of success, happiness, or beauty.  We treat ourselves like an It whenever we build our sense of value and self-worth on the basis of achievements or possessions.  All this really does in the end is feed our egos, which have nothing to do with who we really are.  If we could somehow learn to relate to ourselves as Yous instead of Its, we would be able accept ourselves for who we really are, complete with all our faults and flaws.  You could begin to embrace who you are and reclaim your inherent dignity as God’s child, made in God’s image, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Cultivating a You-relationship with others is not limited to human beings, either.  We can learn to see the earth itself, with all of its plants, animals, and ecosystems, as a personal You in its own right.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to buy into superstitious myths about fairies and tree spirits.  We can live as perfectly rational people and still treat the earth with dignity and respect as an end in itself.  In this way, all of nature can become a portal through which we come to glimpse the very face of God.

We don’t even need to stop there.  We can look around at all those things that we take for granted as Its because they don’t possess the quality life, as we know it.  We objectify them because they appear to be objects to us.  But have you ever had a piece of art affect you on a personal level?  Have you ever seen a painting, a film, or heard a poem or a piece of music that touched your life in a deep way?  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, have both done that for me.  These products of creative genius serve as windows into the soul of the artist.  They communicate something about the nature of what it means to be human.  In doing so, they also reveal something about the very heart of God.  We can learn to see that when we relate to these works of art as You.

This task is somewhat easier when we are talking about beautiful art produced by brilliant minds, but what about the more mundane expressions of human ingenuity that we encounter on a daily basis?  I mean, have you ever really looked at a power drill or thought about it with any seriousness?  Imagine the work that went into designing such a device.  Imagine the factory workers who manufactured it or the minimum wage employee at the hardware store who sold it to you.  When you consider these questions, even for a moment, and give thanks, you are encountering that power drill as a You instead of an It.  You are consciously holding that tool in a way that allows it to become a portal for you, through which the kingdom of heaven is able to invade earth and set up camp in your life.

This was the end-result that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Heaven is not a place, but a state of mind.  Heaven is a way of seeing and being in the world where we “live, move, and have our being” in conscious awareness of the One “from whom, through whom, and to whom” all things come.  It was for this reason that Jesus interrupted his disciples’ ego-driven pursuit of power and greatness by drawing attention to that which is normally dismissed as forgettable and unimportant.  Jesus saw the You beyond the It in that child.  His hope was that his disciples might one day learn how to do the same, so that these overlooked and dismissed ones might find their dignity and claim their identity as open gates of heaven, through which the reality of eternity is made manifest in space and time.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About It

  1. Thank you, heard some of this in my church service on 9.23 – but you added some good things that I had not heard/read before reading this. I especially like: “… If we could somehow learn to relate to ourselves as Yous instead of Its, we would be able accept ourselves for who we really are, complete with all our faults and flaws. You could begin to embrace who you are and reclaim your inherent dignity as God’s child, made in God’s image, and a temple of the Holy Spirit….” Also, appreciate the reminder that in the ancient world, “welcoming hospitality” was literally a matter of life and death. Without welcoming hospitality, travelers could lose their lives! So those who extended welcome were literally lifesavers…Thank you again.

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