Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Secret of Unsuccesses: lastness, leastness, and lostness, as well as littleness and death itself

Here is a selection from the last few pages of Chapter 2, of Parables of Grace by Robert Farrar Capon (who just died a few days ago by the way). I have emphasized certain lines that I think are critical to understand where he is going in this book.

"When the disciples argue about who is greatest (no. 166), Jesus tells them that anyone who wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. He then stands a little child in their midst and puts his arms around him, saying, "Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me." We twentieth-century Christians-with our basically nineteenth-century view of childhood as a wonderful and desirable state-miss the point of this passage. 

In Jesus' time, and for most of the centuries since, childhood was almost always seen as a less than human condition that was to be beaten out of (Kindle 229-233) children as soon as possible. Therefore when Jesus sets up a little child as an example, he is setting up not a winsome specimen of all that is simple and charming but rather one of life's losers. He is telling his disciples that if they follow him in his mysterious messiahship, they will-like him-have to become something no one has any real use or respect for. He is exalting not the plausible greatness that is the only thing the world understands but the implausible greatness that he himself intends to pursue. He is, in short, proclaiming his own version of what Paul in 1 Cor. 1 later set forth as the "foolishness of the preaching," namely, that God works not in the great, the wise, and the powerful but in the weak and the foolish: (Kindle 233-238).

"for the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor. 1:25). 

Accordingly, even though Jesus' holding up of the little child contains no reference to death as such, I find that his emphasis here on life's "little deaths"-his exaltation of a panoply of unsuccesses which, before he is done, he will round out to include lastness, leastness, and lostness, as well as littleness and death itself-is part and parcel of his ever-deepening awareness of himself as a Messiah who will do his work not at the top of the heap, as everyone expects, but in the very depths of the human condition. Likewise, I find that Jesus' warnings (no. 168) against scandalizing "one of these little ones" have the same force. His disciples are to be extreme in their pursuit of lastness, lostness, and littleness: "If your hand scandalizes you, cut it off . . ." (Mark 9:43ff.). They are to become, in other words, what he will become: despised and rejected" (Kindle 238-243). 

Questions for discussion:

What does it mean for us to become last?



and Little?

In what ways are we already lost? Last? Least? Little?