Humble service and the cross
GOD’S WORD TODAY (The Philippine Star) - September 19, 2015 - 10:00am

Pope Francis continues to amaze and inspire me. While many of us are kept abreast by the media with his trips outside Rome, recently to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay; this week to Cuba and the United States, in November to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic; his recent pronouncements on Catholic life, such as allowing priests to forgive women who have had abortions and simplifying the process of marriage annulment; his courageous and challenging encyclical on environmental degradation and poverty, Laudato Si!; his contribution to ending the United States’ embargo against Cuba, not many are aware of his little acts of charity at home, his home the Vatican.

Maggie Leonard, a Presbyterian pastor who has come to deeply admire the pope, cites some of these: “The newly installed showers, so the homeless who flock to the area have a place to wash. The volunteer barbers who show up each Monday to give free haircuts. The Vatican-issued sleeping bags given out to the homeless who increasingly camp out near St. Peter’s Square. The enlistment of the homeless to help pass out prayer books when the Pope gives his weekly address.”

In our Gospel today, Jesus challenges his disciples to emulate the simplicity of a little child. In Jesus’ time children were the most vulnerable members of Jewish society. Infant and child mortality were high. And as long as they did not contribute to the family’s material needs, they were of little value. Yet Jesus extols the child as the greatest in the Kingdom because of its humility and innate trust in God and others.

In last week’s Gospel Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, that is, the anointed messiah, who for many Jews was the hoped-for king and military ruler of Israel. For Peter, that Jesus would suffer and be put to death was irreconcilable with his notion of the triumphant messiah. In a similar vein, James and John argue about positions of influence once Jesus was declared messiah or political leader of his people.

In contrast, Jesus foretells his rejection and death under the hands of their religious and political authorities. In contrast, Jesus during his last supper with his disciples takes the stance of the lowly servant and washes the feet of his disciples as servants did for guests upon entering the home of their host. In contrast Jesus, who stills wind and waves and before whose feet demons tremble, does not call upon others, whether angels or men, to rescue him upon his arrest. Jesus embodies the humility and trust that he preaches.

The paradox though is that the consequence of his message and praxis of humble service is ultimately the cross. How do we reconcile this – that humble service of others leads to the cross?

First we need to clarify that God the Father did not will Jesus’ death from all eternity. Jesus was crucified not due to the Father’s salvific plans but due to the machinations of men in authority, religious and political. Second, humble service of the victims of society can be threatening to the powers that victimize. The care for the materially deprived is an indirect critique of those who amass wealth through the exploitation of others.  The compassion shown landless tenants is a critique of those who usurp the small plots of farmers often dispossessed due to indebtedness or lack of access to credit. The mercy shown the orphan and widow is an indirect critique of a patriarchal culture that discriminates against women and children.

Will engaging in medical missions and feeding programs for malnourished children lead us to the cross? Most likely not. But when humble service becomes a way of life, perhaps. When one rejects the clan’s drive to amass material wealth, perhaps. When one gives away a sizeable portion of one’s income to the poor instead of the family, very likely. When one helping the poor questions government agencies and church communities’ inefficiency or inattentiveness to the survival needs of the poor in their localities, most likely.

If Catholics and non-Catholics are so drawn to Pope Francis, it may be because, as many say, they glimpse Jesus in him; they see Jesus in his humility and genuine care for the poor and marginalized. We can only imagine how many enemies he has created by his radical message and praxis of humble service and inclusive love – from dogmatic traditionalists to violent terrorists. We thus pray for his safety and well-being. But we ask ourselves, too – to what extent am I willing to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of humble service to others as a way of life, as the Christian way of life?

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