One small jar of Gerber's baby food, one spoon, and a pair of four-month-old twin boys harnessed in their dual highchair—these were the ingredients that set the stage for a little epiphany regarding human nature. I was visiting old friends, a couple who were enjoying their fourth month of parenting twin boys, David and Paul. Thinking their celibate visitor might enjoy feeding the youngsters, they supplied me with spoon and pablum and challenged me to the task.
The process began smoothly enough. Toggling between mouth and mouth, my feeding operation fell into a steady rhythm, David and Paul apparently content to take their food from this stranger (Mommy and Daddy comfortingly visible in the background). And then—a fit of perverse playfulness, or a spurt of experimental inquiry?—I suddenly broke the rhythm and delivered two spoonfuls in a row to David, whereupon Paul instantly flew into rage. Immediately I knew he was right and I was wrong. I had violated some primal sense of fairness and had begun to distribute nutrition unevenly.
That little event set me thinking. Paul's was a righteous passion. A psycho-biologist could probably tell me how infants are genetically hard-wired to fight for survival by loudly claiming their share of nutrition. Professor Rene Girard could lecture me about mimetic desire.
The experience gave rise to a question: was there any connection between our primal need to fight for survival and the general human propensity to grab even more than is needed—for any number of motives (insurance against an uncertain future, the assertion of one's relative worth and status, reprisal against enemies)? History seems to say, yes; a good instinct can develop into an evil and dangerous desire and way of life.
Each of this Sunday's readings addresses what can go wrong with our desiring and what the remedy is. In the aftermath of his second prediction of the passion, Jesus catches his disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest (Gospel). This prompts the Master to instruct them with one of his paradoxical one-liners: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Mark's word here for “servant” is diakonos. Though diakonos eventually evolves into the name for a distinct role in the Church (deacon), it was used in the ancient world for the kind of menial service usually done by slaves. Thus Jesus is here going counter to any culture by saying that in his group the most desirable status is that of servant.
Then, as a visual aid, he stands a child in their midst, puts his arms around it, and utters something that sounds as if it comes right out of the Gospel of John:
Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.
At first, this seems to us 20th and 21st century North Americans like an easy invitation. A cute child is always appealing.
But that is not Jesus' point. Those who study the first-century Mediterranean world tell us that children had the lowest status of all in those societies. Being “servant of all” means being servant of the least, of which this child is an example. But then Jesus proceeds to place this serving of the least in the widest possible perspective. When one serves the least, “in Jesus' name,” that is, acting explicitly as his disciple, one is also acting out one's relationship with Jesus.
What is more, one is not simply dealing with Jesus. One is also living out the covenant relationship with the Creator, the One who sent Jesus. A cosmic context for such an intimate act, this teaching helps us see the logic of the “preferential option for the poor.” We are to pay special attention to those who are left out because that is the only sure way to serve all.
And acknowledging that our most casual human contacts are meant to be seen as part of the divine-human covenant is a prime antidote to our tendency to allow our desire for basic needs to turn into violent competition for all that we can get. Recognizing the Giver can tame our getting.
The Second Reading comes at the same issue from a different angle. Here is James' analysis: “You covet but do not possess. … You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” He is saying that the remedy for disordered desires is prayer, not because prayer is magic but because prayer places itself in the world of the covenant, acknowledges the Giver, and opens the heart to a healing of our addictive desire.