This past week has been a virtual workshop in the perils of being filled with selfishness and vainglory. As our Federal government careens toward a shutdown that will injure our economy and harm public trust in government, many of our leaders are more concerned about their grasp on power and self-promotion than cooperating to promote the common good. Their actions increase the partisan divisions in our country rather than bring healing. Rather than showing leadership to help foster unity, they drive a broader and wider gap in our public life.
Broader divisions in our society have recently trickled down to personal relationships. Recently, we have found it more difficult to treat others how we would like to be treated. It is easier to concentrate on our divisions over our similarities. Differences of race, religion, ethnic background, and economic status have grown wider and more profound.
I sincerely feel that all of us here want to be good people. We want to work together to make our lives and those of each other better. We want to live in harmony and grow in our relationships. We would like to see all of our neighbors have their needs satisfied so we can all enjoy the gift of life. In the depths of our hearts, we want to live in love.
We come together today because we are Catholic Christians who believe following the example of Jesus is the answer to that quest. We are here to listen to God’s inspirational word and receive God’s gifts of grace in the Eucharist to help us move away from division and closer to realigning ourselves to the example of Jesus Christ.
Over the last few weeks, my homilies have reflected on Jesus’ instructions to His disciples to help build strong relationships with others. As Jesus walked along the road to Jerusalem, He taught them how to try to resolve their conflicts. He told them they should try to talk it out privately if they disagreed. If that didn’t work, they should seek the shared wisdom of two or three others. If a small group couldn’t solve the issue, consult the whole Church, advised Jesus. If the person remained recalcitrant, treat them as a sinner or a tax collector. Separate yourself from an opponent, but never abandon them. Always be ready and willing to forgive.
Forgiveness isn’t having to claim to be the guilty party. It isn’t changing your mind about who injured who or who was wronged. Forgiveness isn’t giving the guilty party permission to hurt us again. Forgiveness never sanctions continued physical or mental abuse. Forgiveness is realizing that the resentment and anger we experience are damaging us more than the guilty party, and letting it go completely will heal us.
Last week, Jesus instructed the disciples to be generous in their relationships. We can’t let being fair in our behavior get in the way of our being generous. Holding back our generosity to one person out of the fear of not being able to do the same for someone else can’t prevent us from lavishing our gifts on another.
Today’s relationship-building lesson doesn’t come from Jesus himself but from one of the great Apostles, Paul. The New Testament has two different primary literary forms. They are the Gospels, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are four stories of Jesus’ life. While they are similar to what we call a biography today, they aren’t exact stories of Jesus’ life. Their purpose wasn’t to record the events of Jesus’ life but to focus on Jesus’ teachings for a particular community so they could practice them.
The second literary form is Epistles, or letters written by one of the Apostles to a Christian community they had founded, or with whom they had a relationship. Paul was the most prolific letter writer, and today’s Second Reading comes from his letter to the Philippians. The apostles wrote letters to these communities mostly to encourage their faith. They often also wrote to try to correct certain unfaithful practices the Church had fallen into. Selfishness and vainglory are two of the Church practices Paul had to address in his letters often. Selfishness manifested itself in community divisions along economic lines. Paul chastised the rich in the church communities, who would come together to share a sumptuous banquet with other wealthy community members before getting together for the Eucharist while the poor went hungry.
Vainglory was another problem he had to address with the Churches. Many members valued certain of the gifts of the Holy Spirit over others. Those who could speak in tongues or discern visions felt more important than those with less sensational gifts. In his letters, Paul often points out that every believer should be considered equal. God equally blessed all believers.
The city of Phillipi was a Roman colony on the Greek coast. Most of its inhabitants were retired Roman soldiers and their families who settled there to establish a loyal Roman outpost. Of all the Christian communities Paul founded, Phillipi was probably his favorite. Paul probably wrote his letter to them from prison in Rome. It is a thank-you note for their material and spiritual support while he was confined. It isn’t a long letter, and I would suggest everyone read it to understand the conditions of the early Church.
Paul wrote to express his thanks, encourage them, and show appreciation for their work building up the Church. Paul also had to address some of the community’s shortcomings. He had to point out that the Phillipian Church was riddled with disunity. Paul tells them unity is essential for their community’s growth and good health. Their loving concern for one another was the key to successfully living the example of Jesus Christ.
Paul tells the Philippians the key to following the example of Jesus is to treat others better than they treat themselves. No, don’t treat others as you want to be treated, but treat them better! Go beyond the limits and be even more loving! Don’t be the least bit selfish.
Paul tells the Philippians to shift the focus away from themselves and onto others. They need to feel other people are more important than them. They must act as if other people’s concerns are greater than theirs. The opinions of others must hold more weight than their own. If our relationships are to be holy, our outlook can’t be all about me, but all about thee. We must center our perspective on others.
To bring his point home, Paul recites what Bible scholars believe to be the words of an early Church hymn. It is a song sung to the glory of Jesus that recounts how unselfish and disdainful of glory, Jesus lived His life and experienced His passion and death.
The hymn points out that Jesus was unlike any other god worshiped by pagan people. The Greek myths often recounted how their gods would come to earth disguised as human persons, but they were still thought to be and acted as divines.
Jesus came to earth and surrendered His divinity to experience our human condition completely. He came and shared our human pain and suffering. He was born as a helpless child dependent on the care of human parents. He lived a life of service to others and not being served. Jesus brought healing and showed mercy and compassion to all those He met regardless of their love for Him. Jesus emptied himself to die the excruciatingly painful and shameful death on a cross, the type of death usually inflicted on slaves and the most notorious of criminals. Jesus humbled Himself to a degree that no other pagan god or Roman Emperor would tolerate.
Humility isn’t often encouraged today. It is more often denigrated and portrayed as a sign of weakness. Some of our political leaders claim to be the brightest, most vibrant, and most gifted people who have ever lived when they are really inconsequential and banal. Authentic leaders are ambitious not only for themselves but for the community. They are self-effacing and willing to share credit for their accomplishments. They recognize that their achievements aren’t only theirs but a pure gift from God.
This week, work to build your relationships by following Paul’s advice to the Philippians. Imitate the way Jesus made relationships. Focus on others. Who will you be encountering this week? How can you help those relationships to grow in love? Ask yourself what others might need. What fears and anxieties are they struggling with in their lives? What can you do to help ease those concerns?
Add value to your relationships by listening to others and showing interest in their story. Hold back on offering your advice and opinion. Maybe relieve someone of a task that seems to be burdening them. Compliment others on their accomplishments and comment on their efforts.
This week will be a good time to repent of your past selfishness and lack of humility. Recognize how often we all fall into feelings of self-importance and vainglory. How often are we tempted to believe the world revolves around our wants and needs rather than others? Do we find it difficult to keep others and their demands on our minds?
It will take God’s grace in our hearts and souls to resist the temptation to be selfish and full of vainglory. Many times this week, we will see these traits displayed and encouraged by the world around us. Some will portray them as good rather than evil. We will feel encouraged to put ourselves and our wants and desires first. Resist the temptation to self-promote, work to close the gaps in our relationships, and treat others even better than you wish they treated you.