Ask not ‘what can I get,’ but rather how can I give to others

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on February 14, 2016   


            In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus experiences the temptations of Satan in the wilderness; the Evil One attempts to derail the purpose and focus of Jesus’ life and ministry by tempting him to use his divine powers and extraordinary gifts for himself, instead of the liberation and salvation of the human race.  Clearly, much is at stake in this battle of wills, as the Lord stands poised to begin his astonishing public ministry of healing, forgiving, teaching and casting out demons.

            We may think that the temptation in the wilderness was an easy one for Jesus to resist. After all, he is the Son of God, a divine person, sinless and holy. Yet, the Lord was also fully human and struggled with temptations, just as we do. This truth is deeply consoling for it signifies that Jesus fully understands our weakness, fragility and inconsistency. He comes to our rescue as God but fully identifies with our humanity in all of its ambiguity and complexity.

            This temptation scene in the desert teaches us that if we disconnect power from the love and service of others, it rapidly becomes selfish, destructive and even demonic. How many political leaders and governments have killed millions of people, trampled on human rights and strangled the common good because they used power for their own selfish and destructive ambitions? How many economic systems and corporations have pursued raw profit as the only value, as in the case of unfettered capitalism or the virtual enslavement of the worker to the service of the state, as in the case of Marxism?

             Such structures dehumanize people in order to idolize things. In the Dominican Republic, I saw first-hand how the sugar cane companies held Haitian workers in horrible living conditions, brutal physical labor and indentured servitude in order to produce cheap sugar which was still profitable for the owners.  Power unharnessed from love becomes destructive.

            We can observe this same phenomenon in the Church. Clericalism can make some members of the clergy arrogant and self-centered; in such cases, the focus of ministry becomes the cleric’s comfort, authority and agenda, instead of the pastoral care of God’s people. Ecclesial ministers, both lay and clergy, can engage in turf wars, in conflict and competition with each other, instead of working as a team for the spreading of the Gospel. Parish volunteers can become so possessive of the work they do that no new people or ideas can ever penetrate the walls they have built. We only need to read Paul’s epistles to realize that all such negative behavior and attitudes are as old as the foundation of the Church, but they remain antithetical to Christ and his Gospel.

            All of us, in our experiences of work, school, family, Church and friendships, have probably suffered at the hands of another because of the fundamental misuse of power, whether that power be physical, psychological, economic, spiritual or structural. Such painful situations can either embitter us or convert us. We can either exact some sort of revenge when we gain power ourselves or we can break the cycle of abusive fear by embracing Jesus’ example.

            Christ intimately knew God the Father and the secrets of heaven; he could raise the dead, multiply food, calm storms, heal physical maladies, perform exorcisms and forgive sins. If anyone in the entire breadth of human history would have had a right to be proud and arrogant, it would have been Jesus. But we see just the opposite.

             “Though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found human in appearance.”  (Philippians 2: 6-7)

            Jesus understood well that true power must always serve the needs of others in love and humility, and that we are only entrusted with talents, gifts, authority, knowledge and wealth so that we can become servant leaders who bring others to the fullness of their human potential by our own witness to holiness, love, humility and service. 

            In my priestly ministry, I have always called both engaged couples and seminarians (and hopefully myself) to grow in self-knowledge and humility, to develop enough of an integrated self, so that they can give themselves fully to their spouse, whether that be a husband, a wife or the Church. Otherwise, we enter into our vocations, not asking what I can give, but rather, what I can get, not how can I serve, but rather, how I can get others to serve me. 

            Without humility, we subtly organize our lives with ourselves enthroned at the center.  Power unchained from self-emptying love invariably damages others and us.

            Lent is an opportune time to dethrone the false self, the persona that craves attention, control, power and possessions. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving teach us that God is the center of everything, including our hearts. When we let God be God for us, everything moves in a beautiful harmony around that sacred center. Lent is a moment to let the Lord empty us out, so that what remains is his abiding and radiant presence. In the desert, Jesus had nothing except his Father, so actually he had everything.



       + Donald J. Hying


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