The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Giving Everything

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel has some rather obvious applications, not all of which are entirely accurate. For example, many may hear this Gospel reading as a condemnation of the rich or a warning against having too much money or pursuing wealth. Indeed, riches can be a distraction and an obstacle to a relationship with the Lord, and our Lord does warn in other places against pursuing wealth or not using it correctly. Saint Paul says to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) But having money is not in and of itself evil; in fact, having money can be an opportunity for holiness if one uses one’s wealth to serve and build others up. But I really do not think that Jesus was using this particular opportunity to condemn greed; I think he was going for a different message here.

Another application of this reading might be to encourage stewardship. Here the idea would be that virtuous stewardship consists of giving sacrificially and not just pledging some of one’s surplus wealth. There’s something to be said for that, because the requirement to be a good steward does include the notion of sacrificial giving, giving from one’s need. In giving from our need, we trust God with our well-being, and he never fails in generosity. So maybe Jesus is calling on us to give more so that he can give more – when we create want in our lives, there is space for God to give more grace.

So in both of these applications, the subject is money and its use. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think Jesus intended money to be the subject here. I think instead, he was focusing on the sacrifice.

Look at what he said the widow did. She put into the treasury a small amount, but it was all she had: Jesus says, “but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, hew whole livelihood.” Not so different from that is the sacrifice of the widow of Zarephath in the first reading. Elijah had prophesied a drought over all of the Land, God’s punishment for the wicked acts of their kings. And so water and food were in scarce supply, and God sends Elijah to the widow. She’s just about to use up the last of her flour and oil to cook a final meal for herself and her son, when Elijah meets her and asks her to make him some food. He encourages her to trust God, and when she does by giving all that she has, she finds God faithful to feed all of them for some time.

So I’d like to suggest that both of these widows had given everything for their relationship with God. They trusted Him with their very lives by giving everything had to give. It’s a super-scary thing to do, isn’t it? We are ones who love to be in control of our lives and of our situations, and so giving up all of that gives us more than a little pause. But honestly, it takes that kind of a leap of faith to get into heaven. If we still are grasping onto stuff, then our hands are full, and we cannot receive from God the gifts and the grace he wants to give us.

Look at the cross. That, friends, is the prime example of giving everything.  And our God did that for us.  Jesus went gave everything he had by giving his life, suffering the pain of death that we might be forgiven of our sins and attain the blessings of heaven.  God is faithful and so he will not leave us hanging when we give everything for him.

But here’s an important message: the time is short.  The Church gives us this reading very purposely on the third-to-last Sunday of the Church year for a reason.  Because if we’re still hanging onto the stuff that keeps us bound to this life, we may very well miss our invitation to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.  To get to heaven, we have to choose our relationship with God over everything else in our lives.  Everything. We have to empty our hands of all this earthly wealth so that we might obtain heavenly wealth.  We have to give everything we have for our God who gave everything to us and for us, or we’ll be left out.  Hell is truly having nothing, not even Christ, and that’s real poverty.  So we need to model our lives after the example of the widows in our readings today, giving everything, so that we might have Christ who is everything we need.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis.  Nobody likes to talk about it.  It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that.  But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.”  That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God.  Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that.  We would probably say we’re all about the being filled up with God part.  But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so much fun.

Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about.  The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one.  The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them.  Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly, of course, what will happen to Jesus.  So this first reading is a bit of liturgical foreshadowing.

And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles.  In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet.  He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise.  That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it.  Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them.  Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?

I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him so much as a kind word, let alone reflect on what that might mean for them, and the mission.  And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest.  That was true for him, and it would be true for them too.  Quite frankly, it’s true for us too.  That’s kenosis, and to one degree or another, we are all called to share in it.

Here’s the thing: if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too.  Think about it: our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all.  Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one.  Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument.  We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous.  Here’s a spiritual pro-tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others, have relationship with him, and live the Gospel.

Some of the resistance, too, is internal.  Some of the resistance is because, on some level, we love our sins more than we love Jesus.  Ouch – it hurts to say that, but there’s truth there.  Unless we have the desire to give up our sinfulness, really have a firm purpose of amendment, as the Rite of Penance puts it; unless we want that more than anything, then we can’t want Jesus, or his Kingdom, or the Gospel, or eternal life.  We’ve got to be ready to give up everything that takes up space in our lives if we ever want to inherit the glory that God created us to have.

Imagine you have your hands full of stuff that you really like.  Maybe it’s not the best stuff, but it gives you pleasure and so you hang on to it.  Or maybe it’s not really safe, but it makes you feel comfortable, and that’s as good as it gets right now.  Now someone comes and offers you something much better.  But your hands are full, and you’ve become used to the pleasure or the comfort, and so you don’t have any way to receive, to grab the really good thing you are being offered.  The only way you’re going to be able to receive that good gift is by letting go of the garbage in your hand.  Can you do that?  Can you empty your hands so that you can receive grace?

Because here’s the truth: if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. We’re going to have to repent of our sins, give up every distraction, and focus entirely on our God.  Because nothing that looks like earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. Hanging on to the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement will prevent us from filled up with Christ, from receiving his grace, from inheriting eternal life.  We have to get rid of it all: that’s what kenosis looks like for us.  And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

Last night, I talked about the New Testament theme of kenosis, which is the idea of self-emptying, of pouring oneself out.  Last night, we talked about that in terms of the call to service: that Jesus himself got up from table, tied a towel around himself and took the lowest position, washing the feet of his disciples.  We reflected on how we are all called to that kind of kenosis, giving up our entitlement to see to the salvation of everyone in our life.  Today, I’d like to take another brief look at kenosis, because today we see that idea played out in its ultimate form.

I said yesterday that kenosis applied to our Lord, who, as Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  That’s today, of course.  It echoes what Isaiah says of the suffering servant in today’s first reading.  The suffering servant’s appearance is so marred, stricken, so infirm that we cannot bear to look at him.  It shouldn’t be that way; he is our God.  But that’s kenosis.

The reason we can’t bear to look on him, of course, because if we really looked hard enough, we know, in our heart of hearts, that the marring, the strickenness, the infirmity are all ours.  This is a dark hour.  It seems like all is lost.  That’s one of the few guarantees that this fleeting life gives to us.  We will have to bear our own cross of suffering: the illness or death of loved ones, the loss of a job, the splintering of a family, or even the shame of addictive sin.  It is our brokenness that we see in the suffering servant, our sinfulness on the son of man.  And this suffering servant is embodied by our God, Jesus Christ our Savior, who carries all of that nastiness to the cross, and hangs there before us, bleeding and dying and crying out in agony.  That’s our sin, our death, our punishment – and he bore it all for us.  He chose to pour himself out – for us.

And just when it seems like there is nothing left for him to give, when it seems like all life has been snuffed out, when it seems like death has the upper hand, the soldier thrusts his lance into the side of our Lord, and he pours himself out in one more glorious act of kenosis:  from his side pours forth the life blood and water that plants the seeds of the Church into the barren ground of the earth, guaranteeing the presence of the Lord in the world until the end of time.  Christ our God gives everything he has for us, takes away all that divides us, and performs the saving sacrifice that makes salvation possible for all people.  Our God gives up everything – everything – for love of us.

We know that the suffering and death of Jesus is not the end of the story.  In the day ahead, we will keep vigil for the Resurrection of the Lord which shatters the hold that sin and death have on us.  We are a people who eagerly yearn for the Resurrection.  We certainly hope for the great salvation that is ours, and the light and peace of God’s Kingdom.  But that’s for tomorrow.  Today we remember that that salvation was bought at a very dear price, the price of the death of our Savior, our great High Priest.  Today we look back on all of our sufferings of the past or the present, we even look ahead to those that may yet be.  We see all those sufferings up there on that cross, willingly taken there by our Saving Lord.  And as we sit here in God’s presence we know that we are never ever alone in our dark hours, that Christ has united himself to us in his suffering and death.  May we too unite ourselves to him by embracing our own suffering, and walk confidently through it with him, pass the gates of salvation, and enter one great day into God’s heavenly kingdom.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel gives us a very interesting start to the Sacred Paschal Triduum.  This three-day-long-feast begins with a meal, which makes sense.  But it’s a meal interrupted by a very important teaching.  I think it’s fair to say that Jesus never did anything without also trying to teach something important in the process.  When he healed on the Sabbath, he was teaching that the Sabbath was not something to be observed for its own sake, but was for the glory of God and the recharging of people.  When he fed the thousands, he was teaching that there was nothing so impossible that God could not make it happen.  Even when he chose his disciples, he was teaching that people’s worth was defined by God and not by the things they have accomplished on their own.

So when he interrupts this Passover supper to wash the disciples’ feet, he was trying to teach them something, and to put the meal and the teaching together in context.  Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time.  In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration.  And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot.  The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey.  It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was not usually supplied by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, like a servant or slave.  But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around his waist, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.  So we are about to see that he wasn’t just washing their feet to get a job done or even to provide hospitality; he was dong this to give them an example of what Scripture scholars call kenosis.

I had a Scripture teacher who always used to talk about kenosis.  During my seminary days, we went through some pretty rough times with the Church.  Just two weeks after we started, we had the tragedy of 9/11.  Along with the rest of the country, we all felt like the bottom had dropped out and nothing was really certain any more.  Then, the following spring, the sexual abuse scandal broke wide open, and so many of us wondered what we were getting ourselves into.  Many of us had personal tragedies as well, me included when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer just one month apart from each other.  We ended our time in seminary with the tragic death of two of our brother seminarians in a car crash on the school grounds.  Life is like that, we all have things that we go through and we wonder why we go on, why we even try to live as disciples.  And I remember whenever we would express that, one of my Scripture teachers would always look at us and say, “It’s all about kenosis.”

At first when we heard that we looked at him like most of you are looking at me right now.  But we came to know what kenosis meant.  It is a New Testament Greek word that basically means “self-emptying.”  It comes from the root word kenos which is used to describe places or vessels that are empty, or to describe people who are empty handed or arrive without a gift.  Kenosis in the New Testament sense is used to describe Jesus Christ, who as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  Christ emptied himself of the honor that was rightfully his as our God and took our own human form.  That’s kenosis.

And he drove the point home as he finished this great act of service.  He says, “Do you realize what I have done for you?  You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  If even our Lord who had the right to demand anything from us, to whom he gave everything, if even he would tie a towel around his waist and wash people’s feet, then we disciples, we followers of the Lord, we who would look for our reward with him, we must also be willing to do whatever it takes to bring people to salvation.  We’re not supposed to just watch the Mass be performed for us, we’re supposed to live the Mass every day of our lives in any place the Lord puts us, knowing that he walked that way before us, and that our reward will be great.  We, brothers and sisters, are called to kenosis in our own lives.

But here’s the kicker: another aspect of our own call to kenosis is that sometimes we have to empty out the part of us that desperately wants to do everything for ourselves, and to let someone else minister to us in our need.  I told you about my parents both being sick when I was in seminary.  That was such a hard time for me, mostly because I was still really convinced that I could get through anything life threw at me on my own.  But I had to learn that sometimes I need to let my friends pick me up and carry me to Jesus when I couldn’t get there on my own.  I’m bad at that.  I’m like Peter – no one’s going to wash my feet.  But I learned that I have to get over that if I’m ever going to be empty enough for Christ to fill me up.  It’s not about me – and it can’t be about any of us, we who would take up our crosses to follow our Lord.

There’s another part of this Gospel that really strikes me.  You heard me tell you about the practice of washing the feet of guests in Jesus’ day.  So when do you think their feet would be washed?  Immediately upon arriving, of course: their feet were dusty and tired from the journey.  But that’s not what happens here, is it?  The Gospel reading says that during the supper, Jesus rose, changed his clothes, and washed their feet.  That’s a detail that would really stick out to those hearing the story in that day, because they understood the practice.  Now Jesus didn’t wash their feet at that time because he forgot to do it when they arrived, or because he had just now noticed how filthy their feet were.  He had a very specific reason for washing their feet during the meal.  Because now that great act of kenosis would be forever intimately tied to the celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the very precise timing of this act of service, we who receive the Eucharist now know that we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to pour ourselves out in service to our brothers and sisters.  Every time we are fed by our Lord, we must always remember that we are called by our Lord to empty ourselves and become the presence of Christ for those who share life with us.

On this great night, as we begin the great three-day feast of our Savior’s triumph over sin and death, we come together to share a meal – the same meal he shared with his friends on that night so long ago.  And because we Catholics don’t simply remember this night with mere fond recollections of an ancient historical event, but instead by entering into the experience in all its fullness yet again, then we have to hear the same commandment Jesus gave his disciples: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  As we gather and come forward to do this in remembrance of Christ, may we also pour ourselves out each day for our brothers and sisters, lovingly washing their feet just as ours have been washed by our Saving Lord.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis. Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that. But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.” That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God. Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that. But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so great.

Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about. The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one, who is a foreshadowing of Jesus. The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them. Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly what will happen to Jesus.

And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles. In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet. He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise. That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it. Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them. Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?

I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him a kind word. And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest. That was true for him, and it would be true for them too. That’s kenosis.

So if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too. Because our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all. Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one. Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument. We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous. Here’s a tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others.

So if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. Because nothing that looks like our earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. We have to pour out the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement and instead be filled up with Christ. That’s what kenosis looks like for us. And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church sees this evening’s Mass as the beginning of a three-day Liturgy that embodies our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. These three days are the Paschal Mystery, in which we see our Lord’s love and Divine Mercy poured out freely on sinners – which is to say, of course, on you and me. No one in this church has merited this Divine Mercy; it is freely given, and if we have prepared ourselves properly this Lent, freely received.

At the beginning of every Liturgy there is an introit or entrance antiphon. It’s a brief scriptural verse that provides the mindset, if you will, that the Church wants us to have as we pray that Liturgy. For these three days, the Church gives us an adaptation of the fourteenth verse of the sixth book of Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church wants us, appropriately enough, to focus on our Lord who is, after all, the whole reason we’re here tonight, and for the rest of these days. More specifically, the Church wants us to reflect during this most holy three-day liturgy on our Lord’s Cross. And quite honestly, that’s kind of inconvenient. It’s hard to gather people together to celebrate the Cross – it’s not pretty and it doesn’t portray the glitzy kind of happy message that beckons Christians to church.

It’s always been that way. In the early days of Christianity, they knew the cross all too well. They saw it on almost a daily basis. What had been intended to provide an ignominious and painful death to the worst criminal offenders soon enough became the way to execute all those who were politically inconvenient, most especially Christians who refused to take up the worship of pagan gods which was required by the government of the day.

But even now, quite honestly, who wants to look at the cross? We don’t like pain or grief or anything like that. We take a pill for every malady, even braving a horrifying list of side-effects. To those who have experienced the death of a loved one, we offer meaningless platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” and then we expect them back at work in no more than three to five days, functioning and behaving just as they did before. We anesthetize ourselves with drink, or drugs, or hours in front of the television or computer, or immersing ourselves in work, so that we don’t have to confront the difficulties in our relationships, or family lives, or whatever else might be on our plates. So for us, reflecting on the cross is just too painful, and glorying in the cross – well, that’s just ridiculous.

But we know the Truth: we know that it is only by our Lord’s Cross that we have won salvation; we know that we too have been called to take up our own crosses and follow our Lord; we know that we have been given an example and that we need to follow it – we know that if we don’t glory in the Cross, we can never have a resurrection. And so during these three days, I’d like to suggest some ways that we can reflect on the Cross and glory in it, that we might come at last to Easter glory.

Today we see in the Cross our call to service. But by service, I don’t mean the light and fluffy things we see as service – it’s not a quick service project, or writing a check to do our little part of handling a need. Those things are nice, but they don’t really measure up to the example our Lord gives us today. Our Lord’s service was one of kenosis – the Greek word for “emptiness.” Our Lord emptied himself of his own will so that he could completely embody the Father’s will. He did that to save us from our sins. So the service our Lord calls us to today is one of emptying our own will out so that we can be filled by God’s will.

Jesus emptied himself of his will to be served by serving in the most menial of ways. At the banquet, it was not the host who washed the hot, dirty and tired feet of the guests – it was instead the task for a servant or slave. But because none of those at the Last Supper thought himself low enough to take on that task, our Lord did it, and one wonders if Peter’s reluctance to have his own feet washed was because he didn’t want our Lord to stoop down and serve him, or if it was because he knew it meant that he had to do the same thing. How willing are we to empty ourselves of our entitlement and instead to serve the poor and needy among us?

Jesus emptied himself of his will by giving his body and blood to be our Eucharist – our reason for thanksgiving – and to sustain us on the journey to eternal life. He didn’t come just to give us directions to heaven. He came to bring us there, nourishing us along the way, helping us to get up when we’ve fallen, giving us food for body and spirit. He knew that it was only his Body and Blood that would overcome our profane human nature, that would give us enough a share in his Divine nature, that we could find our way to heaven. How willing are we to empty ourselves out, completely giving ourselves for others?

Today the Cross we glory in is one of service – and it’s a service that is a complete giving of self for another. It’s love beyond words. It’s mercy and grace given with wild abandon. It’s an emptying out of self-will so that God’s will can be accomplished now and in the life to come. That Cross can be heavy and inconvenient and even repulsive at times. But it’s the only way to heaven.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s Readings

So the problem is, nobody ever becomes rich and famous by being righteous.  How many people even care about the idea of being righteous?  The world is so often full of jealousy and selfish ambition.  Indeed, we commend people who make amazing business deals (for themselves, anyway), who get ahead (regardless of the cost), who get rich quick (even if it means stepping on people all along the way).  These people are strong, self-assured, ambitious, and clever.  Sometimes they are even entertaining.  But would we ever call them righteous?  Maybe sometimes, but not very often, I think.

So our idea of who is a person worthy of our admiration needs to change a bit, I think.  Jesus puts it very plainly in today’s Gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  That, after all, was the way that he lived his life, and the way that he expected his disciples to live as well.  This is the Jesus who said goodbye to his disciples by feeding them with his own body and blood and washing their feet.  He is the one who cured the sick and preached the word no matter what day it was, Sabbath or not.

Saint James in the second reading urges us all to be truly wise, not covetous and envious and full of hate.  He urges us toward the wisdom of the righteous one, the one who has the wisdom from above, who is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

The problem is, though, that the righteous one doesn’t always live a stress-free life.  Nice guys, as the proverb goes, tend to finish last.  And so, as our first reading tells us, the just one is often seen as an obnoxious irritant to those who do not see with wisdom from above.  And so they set out to knock the just one down a peg or two: “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test,” they say, “that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.”

Jesus knows that just this kind of treatment is in store for him, and he discusses it with the Twelve as they walk along, out of the way of the crowds, so that he might better teach them what is to come. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But the Twelve, as usual, miss the point.  And rather than ask the Teacher what he means, instead they engage in a frivolous argument about who among them is the greatest.

Jesus corrects them, and says that the way a person becomes first among us is that he or she gives everything, empties himself, becomes the last of all and the servant of all.  This is a spiritual principle called kenosis or “self-emptying” that calls the Christian disciple to go deep into himself or herself and to give up all of the back-biting, ambitious attitudes that come so naturally to us fallen people, and instead give everything they have and are for others.  This is righteousness, and it comes at a great cost.  This is our calling as followers of the Lord.

We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters.  We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only.  We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost.  But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true.  To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters.  We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down.  Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.

Monday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

There are two things going on in today’s Scripture readings.  First, we have the Jews, and now Judas among them, who are very jealous of Jesus and are seeking to arrest and kill him.  And not just him, but anyone who encourages people to believe in him, like Lazarus in today’s Gospel.  In these holy days, it’s not safe to be around Jesus.

Second, we have Mary, who pours out the most expensive thing she has for love of the Lord.  She gives no thought to the expense, to what seems like waste, but instead gives it all out of love for her Lord.

For Jesus’ enemies, it was all about them, and not at all about the God they supposedly believed in and served.  But for Mary, it’s about Jesus, and she understands in some way where this is all headed.

So we have the jealousy of the Jews and Judas against the love and generosity of Mary.  In these Holy days, we are called to be Mary, to pour ourselves out in love and generosity, even when the jealousy of the world around us would try to prevent that.

Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

Nobody ever becomes rich and famous by being righteous.    We may never forget who interrupted an awards show or a presidential press conference with an immature comment, but the most truly righteous people will hardly be remembered.

How many people even care about the idea of being righteous?  The world is so often full of jealousy and selfish ambition.  Indeed, we commend people who make good deals (for themselves, anyway), who get ahead (regardless of the cost), who get rich quick.  These people are strong, self-assured, ambitious, and clever.  Sometimes they are even entertaining.  But would we ever call them righteous?  Not very often, I think.

So our idea of who is a person worthy of our admiration needs to change a bit, I think.  Jesus puts it very plainly in today’s Gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  That, after all, was the way that he lived his life, and the way that he expected his disciples to live as well.  This is the Jesus who said goodbye to his disciples by feeding them with his own body and blood and washing their feet.  He is the one who cured the sick and preached the word no matter what day it was, Sabbath or not.

Saint James in the second reading urges us all to be truly wise, not covetous and envious and full of hate.  He urges us toward the wisdom of the righteous one, the one who has the wisdom from above, who is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

The problem is, though, that the righteous one doesn’t always live a stress-free life.  Nice guys, as the proverb goes, tend to finish last.  And so, as our first reading tells us, the just one is often seen as an obnoxious irritant to those who do not see with wisdom from above.  And so they set out to knock the just one down a peg or two: “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test,” they say, “that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.”

Jesus knows that just this kind of treatment is in store for him, and he discusses it with the Twelve as they walk along, out of the way of the crowds, so that he might better teach them what is to come. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But the Twelve, as usual, miss the point.  And rather than ask the Teacher what he means, instead they engage in a frivolous argument about who among them is the greatest.

In some ways, it’s the classic schoolyard disagreement.  “My dad can beat up your dad.”  Or, even better, maybe it’s the classic sibling rivalry: “Mom likes me best.”  These things are sort of understandable among children.  Children growing up need to know where they fit in to the structure of society, so there are a lot of comparisons going on all the time.  But when that kind of argument begins to take place among adults, it’s not at all charming.

Jesus says that the way a person becomes first among us is that he or she gives everything, empties himself, becomes the last of all and the servant of all.  This is a spiritual principle called kenosis or “self-emptying” that calls the Christian disciple to go deep into himself or herself and to give up all of the back-biting, ambitious attitudes that come so naturally to us fallen people, and instead give everything they have and are for others.  This is righteousness, and it comes at a great cost.  This is our calling as followers of the Lord.

We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters.  We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only.  We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost.  But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true.  To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters.  We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down.  Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.