I rely a lot on the Spirit to guide me as I think about the faith and – especially – as I write my reflections. Every so often, however, the Spirit gives me a bit more to chew on than I can handle; the illumination I seek is more elusive, and I end the exercise feeling like I know less than when I started.
Fortunately, I believe that’s good! You can tell that many times Jesus’ disciples were talking to him, they were more confused afterward than when Christ began his lesson. But the seeds planted by the Son of Man bore fruit for his disciples later, resulting in further spiritual awakening that took place some time after the original lesson. And, of course, the Spirit continues to work through Sacred Scripture all these years later for new and life-long Christians alike.
So what thought did this week’s readings inspire in me, for which I don’t have an easy answer? Namely: Does the fact that we are Christian make us better than other people?
This question arose in my mind as I considered the Gospel selection from Matthew. In it, James and John ask Christ to let them sit at his left and right sides in Jesus’ kingdom. (This version differs a bit from the version of the story in Mark 10:35-45 by having the request come from James’ and John’s mother.) Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking,” explains a bit of the ultimate costs of being Christ’s follower, and tells them that such seats are not his to give. And then Jesus said to the Twelve disciples something that’s stuck with me ever since I read it while on the road to converting to Catholicism, striking to the heart of the faith:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I could write pages and pages to those words alone. However, I’ll limit myself today to the question I had: Does the fact we’re Christian make us better than others?
I think there are certainly those who feel it does; the notion of “holier than thou” types has its roots somewhere. And, on some level, I certainly take some happiness in knowing that I am part of the Church.
To put the question on its side, if I felt that being a Christian did not make me better than others – or, at least, better than my old pre-Christian self – then what am I doing in the faith? If I felt that wearing the color blue made me look worse, I wouldn’t wear it, right?
And yet, looking at Christ’s words, I see that a notion of being better or worse than others should be the farthest from our hearts and minds. To follow Christ is to become a servant, and those of us who long to advance further in stature or power than those around us are most likely to end up with the least of what we want.
Still, it’s obvious that Jesus is trying to have us follow him. That must mean that those who do so are better than those who don’t, right?
Well, after a lot of reflection and prayer, I came up with an analogy that works for me.
Let’s say that a man is hopelessly lost somewhere, and without a map or means to ask for directions. (I get lost all the time, so this is easy for me to visualize.)
Now let’s say that a woman is also hopelessly lost. However, she is given a map along with detailed instructions for how to get where she wants to go. Is she better than the first person?
Not really. The mere fact that she owns a map doesn’t make her better. Sure, she’s in a more enviable position, since she has the means to get where she wants to go. But that’s only true if she follows the directions. If she doesn’t follow the directions she has, she’s no better off than the first guy; in fact, she’s much stupider because she has directions but – for whatever reason – isn’t following them.
People get lost all the time; there’s no shame in that. But it is questionable to be lost and to have a map and directions, but not follow them.
Similarly, the Church is clear that – say – people who haven’t heard of Jesus can still achieve eternal salvation. (See paragraph 847 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but the whole of paragraphs 839-848 is invaluable insight into the relationship of other faith traditions with the Church.) The world is full of people who do not yet know and/or accept the Truth of Christ, and for them we must continue to pray and teach. Yet for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have the roadmap to Heaven; we have the directions. We know the Truth and teachings of Christ. If we fail to live up to them, then we’re potentially worse than those who don’t consider themselves Christian. They’re lost because they haven’t accepted directions; if we’re still lost even though we have directions, then we’re letting down God . . . and ourselves.
Being a Christian is not a label. It’s not a checkbox, like knowing your alphabet, where – once you know it – you don’t really need to think about it again. It’s an ongoing commitment to know, love, and serve God. It’s a continual decision to keep following the directions as set forth by Christ. It’s a continuing effort to serve, as Christ teaches us in today’s Gospel selection. The Lenten season is a perfect opportunity to reevaluate our own efforts at following the directions we’ve been gifted by God, and make sure we’re not wandering off the path on our journey to Heaven. Otherwise, it’s possible we’re just as lost as everyone else, but all the unwiser because we’re ignoring the map we have.