Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012
Today’s first reading from Isaiah probably sounded familiar to many of you. It is part of a passage that is read on Good Friday, that we have come to know as the prophecy of the Suffering Servant. Christians immediately recognized that Jesus Christ, particularly in his passion and death, embodied the man spoken of centuries earlier by Isaiah. It was not a great leap to make the connection: the suffering servant described by Isaiah would silently and without anger bear upon his shoulders the guilt of the many and like a lamb be led to the slaughter.
What comes to our minds when we picture the suffering servant? I imagine that the scene looks pretty miserable. He is bent over and looks defeated and weak. His beard is all scraggly – a travesty. And he is skinny, because miserable people are always skinny. His face looks forlorn as he grimaces in pain.
The idea of a suffering servant conjures up for most of us the image of someone who is miserable. But our Gospel, and many other teachings of Christ, and the witness of the lives of the saints who have followed after him should give us pause before we accept such a miserable picture. In fact, we have reason to believe that in the very midst of his passion, Christ was experiencing a deep and abiding peace.
That even in though the suffering servant suffers, but he does not resent his suffering, he is not existentially shaken by his suffering, he is not miserable. He might even have, at the depth of his being, something very close to joy.
Joy in the midst of suffering? The idea seems so naïve and pollyannaish, doesn’t it? And that is why we need to speak about our Gospel and these readings so clearly today. Because they show us a truth about who we are that is so counter cultural and forgotten in our day.
In the Gospel, Christ teaches his disciples that what brings joy and fulfillment in life is not seeking to preserve your life, but seeking to give it away. He turns the survival instinct on its head: we are not mere animals who live in a slavery of finding survival by being the fittest. We are made in the image and likeness of God. And what is God like? God is love. That means that his joy and his very existence come not from what he receives - because who can give anything to God – but from his continuous giving of his life and his love. We are made in the image of this God who finds joy in giving, not in the image of an animal who finds joy only in receiving.
That is what Jesus revealed to us on the cross – that we are most ourselves when we give our lives away, because it is in this act of offering our lives that we live most fully in the image and likeness of the God who made us. We are made to find joy in being suffering servants, in offering our lives as a sacrifice to God and to others.
And so while it is possible for human beings to act as if they were mere animals, preoccupying themselves with ensuring that all of their needs are met and desires satisfied, to do so is to ignore the way that we are made and to take a path that will lead to misery, not only for ourselves, but for our world. The goods of this world are limited, and so when our lives are dominated by the concern for worldly things we begin resent others, we deceive others, we develop hatreds for others. Other human beings become our competition, they threaten our survival, or at best become useful tools on our path to success. Even our own children can be perceived as threats to our happiness and fulfillment, and, like many animals, can be trampled if they get in the way of our quest for our own needs. When we are motivated by the same desires as other animals, we act like animals, and our culture becomes a jungle of hatreds, rivalries, resentments, and fears. A culture of death.
On the other hand, when we accept and live the truth about the sacrificial nature of human life revealed by Christ we find joy and life. Instead of resenting the demands others make upon us, we embrace them because we understand them as opportunities to become more Christ-like, and in becoming Christ-like, find joy. We are motivated to offer our lives and gifts freely, not counting the cost. And we are freed from fear, because if you are trying to give your life away, what can anyone take from you that will not help accomplish your purpose?
A Christian culture, a culture of suffering servants offering their lives is sacrifice, is one of joy, peace, goodwill, and freedom. A culture that loves its children and elderly and disabled because they bring the best out of us and help us to be more fully human as we serve their needs. A culture that is bound together in a profound social commitment and solidarity, because nothing is such a cross to love as another human being, and we know that happiness is found when we take up our crosses and follow Christ.
In a half hour or so we will leave this sanctuary where we are nourished and incorporated into the one, eternal offering of Christ and step out into a world that is makes it easy to forget who we are and what will make us happy. How long will it take us before we start thinking about what we need, about what we didn't get, or shouldn't have to give? Maybe when we turn on the television, and a commercial draws our attention to a product or political failure? Or when a spouse or child or parent or friend makes a request of us? Or when we are presented with an opportunity to be of service? Or when something stirs within us to sit with Christ in prayer? Remember at that moment: we are not animals whose happiness depends on the fulfillment of our needs and desires. We are made in the image and likeness of God, the suffering servant. We will find misery if we try to find happiness the way animals do. God has made us differently - so that we find life, joy, freedom and peace when we offer our lives in sacrifice to God and to others.
So back to that image of the suffering servant? What do you see? I see someone whose countenance radiates a depth of character and deep peace, whose eyes sparkle with a love and joy that is contagious, and whose step is confident and unafraid. I see the full stature of a human being living in the image and likeness of God.