Brothers and sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-5
Being a believer is not a personal accomplishment; it is a gift. It is to be in the world with the conviction that one’s life is a “call . . .[one has] received.” It is to know one’s place in the world in a very particular way, as a servant or instrument of the ongoing creative action of God’s love in the world. The purpose and meaning of life for the true believer is captured by the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give.”
Much of the world intuits that Pope Francis has somehow initiated a type of Copernican revolution in the contemporary Church. By word and deed he has changed our very way of seeing ourselves in the world from a self-oriented to an other-oriented perspective. As Jesus in the gospels, he directs our gaze away from our preoccupation with our own moral or dogmatic rectitude to the vulnerability and need of the world around us. He reminds us that we have been given the gift of our unique call to offer that gift, in turn, to the world, especially to the needs of the world for which it is best suited and most helpful and healing. We need not be concerned about brandishing or perfecting the gift, only about giving it away to whomever may need it.
As basic as this call “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received” is, there is nothing more counter-cultural and difficult. This is why the author of Ephesians says that to live the generosity to which we are called requires humility, gentleness, and patience. We can feel inspired by the call of Jesus and Pope Francis to live for others, yet in real life we find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to live with those closest to us. Although we can feel the inspiration of the call to serve, there is something in us that wants to serve from the stance of a master rather than a servant. We want to help but we then want to be recognized by others for it. When we do attempt to be of service, we often find ourselves hurt, frustrated, and angry when our “service” is not received on our terms and appreciated as we expect it to be. Being a servant to the real specific others that God gives to us is, in truth, often a frustrating and irritating experience.
We often hear it said that to be a disciple is to be a servant. However, the reverse is also true: truly to be a servant requires that we remain, at all times, a disciple. Turning from living a self-centered life to an other-centered life is always a work in progress. If we are to keep the work alive in us, we must constantly allow ourselves to be taught by those we are attempting to serve. We must have the “humility” of which Ephesians speaks, to recognize how much of our inner dispositions rebel at the idea of serving rather than being served. We must learn the kind of patience with our own obtuseness and hardness that will enable us to grow in patience with others, who are not any more self-centered than we are. Ephesians says that we must strive to “preserve unity” because it is very difficult for creatures who each want control and autonomy to remain unified. Many of our attempts to serve others and to offer our gift will be tarnished by our often hidden need for power and control. The frustration and anger that the “objects” of our good intentions evoke in us are potential moments for learning and reformation. That learning, however, is slow and sporadic. Thus, we must always try to practice, with ourselves and others, humility, gentleness, and patience.
The call to serve involves something special, to which we must be attentive. Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability. Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people. Theirs are the suffering, fragile and downcast faces which Jesus tells us specifically to look at and which he asks us to love. With a love which takes shape in our actions and decisions. With a love which finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform. People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve. Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it. That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.
There is a kind of “service” which truly “serves”, yet we need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a “service” which is “self-serving”. There is a way to go about serving which is interested in only helping “my people”, “our people”. This service always leaves “your people” outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.
All of us are called by virtue of our Christian vocation to that service which truly serves, and to help one another not to be tempted by a “service” which is really “self-serving”. All of us are asked, indeed urged, by Jesus to care for one another out of love. Without looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbor is doing or not doing. Jesus tells us: Whoever would be first among you must be the last, and the servant of all”. He does not say: if your neighbor wants to be first, let him be the servant! We have to be careful to avoid judgmental looks and renew our belief in the transforming look to which Jesus invites us.
Pope Francis, Homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Havana, Cuba