Sunday, September 23, 2012


   Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Have you ever seen the reality TV show, Undercover Boss?
I remember watching the premier
a couple of years ago after the Super Bowl
and thinking, “This is going to be pretty good!”
In case you haven’t watched it, the premise is that the boss—
and we’re talking about the CEOs of restaurant chains,
major resort hotels, manufacturing companies,
cruise lines, even the mayor of Cincinnati—
all these executives go undercover, 
leaving their cushy corporate offices and disguising themselves
to work on the gritty front lines of their industries.

In that very first episode,
the president of 
a waste management business
gets himself “hired” 
by his own company 
at the ground level:
picking up garbage, 
sorting through recyclables,
even cleaning porta-potties.
(I suspect there are 
quite a few people
who’d like to see their boss 
clean a porta-pottie!)
He’s not much good 
at all this, however,
and finds himself getting fired 
for the first time in his life.
The idea, of course, is that these bosses,
by getting their own hands dirty,
will understand their company’s operations and employees
a whole lot better because of this experience…
…not to mention, by their misadventures,
get you to tune in week after week.

If you think about it,
the gospel could easily be renamed, Undercover God.
We profess in our Creed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,
that he is “consubstantial with the Father”:
Jesus is of the same stuff as God.
And we also profess
that Jesus is “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”:
he’s of the same stuff as his human mother, 
the same stuff as us.
We believe that almighty God 
has come undercover as an ordinary man
to experience everything that we do—even death.

Jesus is trying to prepare his Apostles for this.
We’ve just heard him predict for a second time
that he will be betrayed, will suffer, and will die.
But notice how dense those Twelve seem to be.
True: Jesus hadn’t yet completely blown his cover;
they didn’t yet recognize his divinity.
And, true: they didn’t—as we do—
have the benefit of Easter,
didn’t yet know 
what “to rise on third day” really meant.
Nevertheless, isn’t it a bit alarming 
that the Lord’s inner circle—
when they hear 
of his impending Passion—
can only think about 
who’s most important among them?
They appear consumed 
by the jealousy and selfish ambition
of which St. James warns—
and which still cause 
such scandal and division to this day
when they’re found in the Church.

But maybe things 
are not as they would first seem.
given Jesus’ repeated talk of dying—
the Apostles are just doing 
the logical, practical thing
and trying to figure out 
who should be in charge when he’s gone.
That would certainly help to explain not only their behavior,
but Jesus’ response.

Jesus wants to be sure the Twelve understand
why he—though innocent—will be beset by the wicked.
They won’t have all the pieces until later, after his resurrection,
but he wants them to eventually grasp
that God really, truly came as man.
And so Jesus tells them that whoever aspires to first place
must be willing to take the last—
must do just as he did, and be an “undercover boss.”
As someone once insightfully put it,
“Jesus took the last place so utterly
that no one has ever been able 
to get it away from him.” (cf. H. Huvelin)

To drive his point home, Jesus pulls a child into the circle.
I cringe every time I read or hear this gospel passage,
because the child is referred to not as “him” or “her but “it.”
Our world is dehumanized enough;
must we refer to children in the same manner
as we would our possessions or our pets—
things to dispose of as we please?
But that’s what’s in the original Greek…
…because that was the place of children in society.
Legally, a young child was considered on par with a slave.
They were the first to suffer in the community
when it was struck by war, famine, or disease.
While we look at that child in Jesus’ arms
as a symbol of perfect innocence and utter humility,
the Apostles likely saw a symbol of complete powerlessness.
And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves…so it remains today:
almost eight million children die each year
before their fifth birthday due to poverty;
one hundred and fifteen thousand children
die before birth every day because of abortion.

For Jesus to embrace that little child
should capture our attention just as much
as if we discovered our boss 
picking up our trash at the curb.
Jesus presents those of us 
who would follow him
with the challenge to serve 
the very least in our midst:
those without power or status;
the unwanted and neglected, 
the abused and ignored;
the outcast, the sick, the sinner.
Such are the ones 
with whom Jesus most identifies—
not the popular 
nor the wealthy nor the strong.
Born in a borrowed manger, 
dying on a criminal’s cross:
thus did Jesus take the last place;
thus did God go undercover.
Are we willing to seek and to serve him there?
Because that, my friends, 
is where we’re sure to find him:

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.
We will soon receive God “undercover” in the Eucharist:
the Savior of the world under the appearance of bread and wine.
May his hidden presence in this Sacrament
open our eyes to recognize the Lord
when he’s hidden in our neighbor.

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