Spirituality for Today – September 2010 – Volume 15, Issue 2

A Lesson In Christian Service

By Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min.

Six days a week – Monday through Saturday – we live our lives in a highly competitive world. Nations compete for power, politicians compete for votes; businesses compete for customers; workers compete for jobs and promotions; athletes compete for victory. All of us, it seems, are competing with someone for something that we want, but only one of us can have. That is how we live six days a week.

A photo of a white church

Then on Sunday we come to a place of worship and encounter a totally different emphasis. We pray that God's will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We talk about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. In song and in homilies, we proclaim that the important thing is not how much we can get for ourselves, but how much we can give to others.

Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ are faced with the challenge of trying to reconcile these two different worlds: the secular world of unbridled competition and the Christian world of caring and sharing. How can this be done?

The first thing we need to do is to recognize that there is a sense in which it cannot be done. In this world, there are some kinds of competition that have no appropriate place in the Body of Christ. Struggles that include bitterness and jealousy, and a burning desire to crush an opponent are clearly unchristian.

So, too, is the petty rivalry that tears at the fabric of our society. One family sets a sensible standard of living for themselves and are quite content, until another family shows signs of greater affluence. Then the first family feels a need to elevate their own standard. Their house must be as large; their clothes must be as fine. Their automobile must be luxurious.

That is obviously an exaggeration but there is enough truth in it to make it sting. Petty jealousy embitters all the class distinctions that cut our society asunder. That kind of rivalry clearly does not belong in the life of one who claims to be a follower of Christ.

But having said that, we must go on to recognize that competition is a legitimate thing. Not only is it legitimate, it is inevitable. Every one of us, to some degree, is a born competitor.

The right kind of competition is a major source of human achievement. It is also a source of pleasure and excitement. Imagine playing tennis or football against opponents who did not strive to win. That would take all of the fun out of the game. An old adage says, "Variety is the spice of life." Perhaps it is, but so is friendly competition. Life would be rather dull without it.

So the question is not whether to compete. In one way or another we will do that. The question is how to compete, against whom, and for what. There is Gospel reading where Jesus and his disciples had been traveling around Galilee. Along the way he had been telling them about His impending death. He was trying to get them to see the connection between suffering and saviorhood. But they did not understand.

When they got back home to Capernaum, Jesus began to ask what they had been discussing along the road. At this point, an awkward silence fell on the group. No one wanted to answer. They were all embarrassed because they had been arguing about who was the most important.

Isn't it incredible? During the time when Jesus was preparing himself and trying to prepare them for His death on the Cross, they were arguing over the top job in the kingdom. This is a clear example of the competitive instinct gone wrong.

Jesus might have gotten angry, but he did not. Instead, he sat down, gathered all around him, and taught them a lesson on Christian competition. He said, "If anyone wishes to rank first, he must remain the last of all and the servant of all." What a powerful lesson in humility.

So the real field of rivalry for a Christian is not power, not prestige, not money, or fame. It is a competition of service. We are to strive for excellence and usefulness. And the competition is not so much with each of us as with ourselves.

Our role model, of course, is Christ. He is the incarnate of God's standard for ordinary people like you and me. His primary claim to greatness is usefulness. He was the willing servant of anyone who needed him. That kind of greatness is within reach of all of us. And over the long haul, it is the only kind that really matters.