18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - August 1, 2021
Last week Jesus performed the multiplication of the loaves, and all the people who witnessed the amazing miracle wanted to make Jesus king. Making Jesus king was the same thing as asking him to lead them in a revolution against the Roman Empire. The Israelites at that period in their history didn't have their own kingdom. They were an occupied territory, ruled by a Roman delegate, who gave them only very limited powers of self-determination. How about if I explain it this way: "Israel was like the thirteen colonies before they broke off from England - and the Israelites wanted Jesus to be their George Washington."
And the massive crowd of would-be revolutionaries was so convinced that Jesus was the perfect revolutionary leader that they followed him across the Sea of Galilee after he sneaked away in the middle of the night. So Jesus finds himself once more surrounded by this huge, adoring crowd willing to follow him to the death if only he will agree to be their king, to bring them political freedom and prosperity.
What would most people do in that situation? They would fulfill their dreams of ambition, giving the crowd what they wanted so as to enjoy celebrity status for as long as it lasted. Not Jesus. He didn't come to earth for an ego-trip; he came to fulfill a mission. And that mission is not to bring paradise on earth - which is what they want: "you are... looking for me... because you had all the bread you wanted to eat."
Rather, he came to bring them "bread from heaven," the truth and freedom that come from of living in communion with God. He doesn't cave in to the temptation to satisfy a natural desire for power and popularity, for merely human success. Christ is a Leader entirely focused on his mission, not on himself. If we are to be faithful to him, if we are to experience true success in this life, we need to follow in those footsteps.
One reason it is so hard for us to live according to Christ's standard of true success is because the world/society around us doesn't usually reward true success.
In our world, selfishness and sin are often glorified and glamorized - not always, but often. This is why the Bishop Emeritus of Rome, Benedict, in his second Encyclical Letter, called the Last Judgment a motive for hope more than for fear. The Christian believes in God's promise that even if justice is not always or completely fulfilled here on earth, it will be fulfilled at the end of history. And so, our efforts to do the right thing, to serve those in need, to be merciful and forgiving, to control and channel our selfish tendencies - all these efforts, which can be so costly and painful here on earth, are worth it. With them we are building up an eternal kingdom; the rewards of true success will never be lost.
Here is how Benedict explains it:
"The image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope... it is an image that evokes responsibility... God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace... Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value... Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened".
So even if our efforts for true, everlasting success are not rewarded very much here and now, they are still the best investment we can make with our time, talent, and treasure.
Here's how Mother Teresa put it:
"At the end of our lives, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by 'I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me'".
Learning this lesson well is the antidote to one of the most disturbing sentiments we can experience: envy.
Envy is a self-centered reaction to other people's successes, a reaction that fills us with anger and spite and makes us resent them. Envy doesn't just fill our own souls with anguish; it also leads to sins like destructive criticism, calumny, tale-bearing, and even violence. And it comes from thinking that if someone else succeeds in some visible way, then their victory is somehow my loss. If we conceive of success in an earthly way, there is a certain logic in this thinking.
If Joe gets the promotion, then Frank can't get it. If Martha wins the gold medal, then Matilda can't. When it comes to earthly achievements, success is, at least in part, exclusive. But when we measure success truly, the way Christ does, in terms of fulfilling our unique mission of loving and serving God as only we can, then envy is no longer logical.
The heart of our mission in the Church consists of deepening every day, through prayer and virtuous action, our friendship with Christ. But since every friendship is personal and unique, no one can "beat us" at it. No one else can know, love, and serve God in the exact same way that you can, because you are absolutely unique - that's how God made you.
In heaven, please God, each one of us will have a totally unique glory, because our friendship with Christ is totally unique. Adopting true, Christ-like success as our personal standard of success has many other benefits as well, but its being an antidote to envy is high on the list.
As we continue with this Mass, in which Jesus will renew his commitment to us, let's renew our commitment to him, and to his style of success.