Much of the frustration and exasperation of living as disciples of Jesus comes from trying to fit the teachings of Jesus into our own lives rather than forming our lives around and through what Jesus did and said. It has to do with obedience, submission and total surrender.
Most of those words aren’t very popular right now. I think that might be because those words have been used to take advantage of people and abuse them. If we truly lived those virtues with Jesus as the model, they would be freeing, life-giving and salvific. We have our interior and exterior arguments with ourselves and others about how far Jesus wants us to go with this. How obedient? How submissive? How surrendering?
Since the cross was the ultimate expression of the depth of love that Jesus has for each of us, that is the length we are called to live this life of discipleship. When the invitation comes to us to “work in the vineyard,” that work should look like the cross. Whether we go right away or after some inner turmoil, we are to go freely and without reservation. That voluntary self-emptying is what is so profoundly written about by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Instead of exerting some other form of power, Jesus chose to believe that the choice to love fully means giving it all out of love. Whether it is washing feet around the gathering for the Last Supper or hanging on the cross, whether it is forgiving His apostles once again for getting it all wrong or breaking cultural barriers, He chose to empty Himself freely. It wasn’t pulled from his tightly gripped fists, but freely given.
Is your work in the vineyard safe and secure? Do you make choices to engage in voluntary self-emptying or secure your own life first and then choose to give? How many of the opportunities that each of us are given carry with them the clear possibility of playing it safe or putting our lives on the line? Who is it in your life who has betrayed you or abandoned you who you would freely give your life for? What are the circumstances where you freely open your life to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the stranger and alien, the sick and the dying? We are each given the opportunities to show the world and each individual what Jesus really looks like and how Jesus really acts.
For my part, I believe what I say and I am willing to do what I say because I have been so loved by God. But when I try to translate that into honest human interactions, it becomes much more difficult. It feels somewhat like Jesus’ time in the garden before He was betrayed. He had a sense of what was about to happen to Him. He wondered if it was necessary. He prayed and gave the Father a chance to have some input into His decision. In the end, He embraced the call and voluntarily emptied Himself. What might that look like for you and me? Where are we being called to do the same? Practicing in small ways prepares us for those big moments. What might you get rid of today, not because you don’t like it any more but because you would voluntarily, out of love, give it away for another. Then leave that space in your life empty, awaiting the outpouring of the Spirit in you.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.