26 September 2011
How Can I Be More like Jesus?
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
How can I be more like Jesus? It’s a pretty straightforward question, and one that hopefully we are asking ourselves at least each week, if not every day. How can I be more like Jesus? When we talk about becoming more like Christ, we are talking about acting more like Christ in the way we respond to others. To paraphrase St. Paul from our second reading, we are talking about having the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
The sacred authors present two main virtues that we can work on, with the necessary help of God’s grace, that will make us more like Christ: humility and obedience. Humility is a tough word. Many of us tend to think of humility as denying gifts that we have, or at least playing them down. But this is not the humility of Jesus, and it is not truly humility. Humility is the recognition of the truth before God. Of course, before God we have to admit our total poverty. By that I mean that everything we have is a gift from God, and if it weren’t for God, we would have nothing, not even existence. But we also stand before the Father as beloved sons and daughters in the Son of God. We are the only creation on earth that God willed for its own sake as the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes states. No plants, no animals, not even pets, exist in such a way.
But what we see in Jesus is that humility is the gift of the entire self to the Father and trusting in Him to return that back in full. In Greek the word is kenosis, or self-emptying. We see it in Jesus as the one who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus does not deny that He is divine. In fact, He asserts it all throughout Scripture, which is why Jesus was condemned for blasphemy. But he does not cling to His divinity. He gives all that He is to the Father, who does not abandon Him to the power of death, but “greatly [exalts] him and [bestows] on him the name above every name.”
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus extols the virtue of obedience. Obedience is a virtue that many consider a vice today. We want control. We want to be independent. We want to be self-governing. We want to be our own masters and have no one over us. Perhaps we even come close (though we would never admit it) to the words that Milton puts on Satan’s lips: “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,” so keen are we to be in charge. But Christ sets before us obedience as virtue. He doesn’t eliminate our ability to freely choose, but puts forward that the right thing to do is to use that freedom to obey our Father, who calls us to work in His vineyard. Even if we don’t respond positively at first, like the first son, who at first is disobedient, we can still use our free will to choose obedience. And Jesus tells us that obedience is one of the ways that we prepare ourselves for heaven, where this is no democracy, no voting on which values to promote or which goods to pursue, but where we are all subjects of God who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In fact, if we are being humble, then part of pouring ourselves out to the Father is even pouring out our free will so that it can be used by the Father for good. Obedience is almost a corollary of humility.
How do we see humility and obedience in action? We see kenosis in a unique way in marriage, though everyone is called to self-emptying. We see kenosis in the love that a man pours out on his wife, that the wife freely receives, and that the wife pours out on her husband, and that he fully receives. We see kenosis in the many sacrifices that a married couple makes for each other: from something as simple as putting the toilet seat down, to the great sacrifice of giving up one’s physical life in order to protect the spouse, and many ways in-between those two extremes. We see kenosis in the many ways that a man and woman have to give up their own preferences, their own desires, for the good of the couple, who are no longer two, but one flesh. We see it in the many sacrifices parents make for their children, the fruit of that one-flesh union. And even outside of marriage in the many ways that people sacrifice to help family members, friends, neighbors, and sometimes even strangers. And while we might be afraid to pour ourselves out for another, we see that Jesus, who poured our even His very life for His spouse, the Church, lost nothing of who He is, but gained everything because of the great trust He had in His Father.
Obedience in a Catholic context is often associated with priests and religious because priests make a promise of obedience to the bishop, and religious make vows of obedience to their superiors. But often, obedience has the connotation of a tyrant lording it over another. In my experience of obedience, that is farthest from the truth. Obedience is communicating between the superior and the inferior. I tell the bishop what I believe to be important: what gifts God has given me, where I would like to serve, what responsibilities I would enjoy having. He listens to those and takes them to heart. And then he decides, for example, where I am assigned, based upon his understanding of the needs of the parish and the diocese. And in trust and filial love, I respond with the free and full assent of my will. That obedience gave me that great blessing of being sent here to serve. That relationship between a priest and his bishop is also meant to inform the relationship between each layperson and God, and the legitimate authorities that God has established in His Church. Communication is part of obedience; it is part of kenosis, the self-emptying, from which obedience comes. But once the time to give our own thoughts has passed, it means freely choosing the will of God over our own wills, using our freedom to obey. And in that obedience, we find true happiness, because God has created us for obedience.
It is difficult to be like Christ. It is difficult, at times, to be humble, to pour ourselves out totally to the Father, abandoning ourselves entirely to His will. It is difficult, at times, to be obedient, to use our God-given freedom to freely subject ourselves to the will of God. Our temptation, the result of original sin, is always to cling for dear life to our own will and our own good. But what we see in Christ is that true happiness and glorification are the fruits of true humility and obedience. And the more we become like Christ, humble and obedient, the more God sees in us the image of His Beloved Son. Pour yourself out to God; you will not be lacking anything but will instead gain everything. Freely choose to serve God; your freedom will not be limited, but will instead flower into the freedom to choose what is good and right.