One of the perks of reading Scripture
critically is that we learn biblical chronology. We discover which author
wrote first, and which author influenced others.
Without such critical knowledge, for instance,
we'd presume Paul was influenced by the author of John's Gospel. As we
listen to Sunday's second reading (Phil 2: 6-11) about Jesus giving up His
"quality with God and...taking the form of a slave," we probably
have John's well-known words running around in the back of our minds:
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God,....and the
Word became flesh!"
But those words couldn't have been running
around in Paul's mind. He was martyred 35 years before they were composed.
Genesis, not John, influenced Paul. Instead of
referring to Jesus' pre-existence as God, he is simply commenting on the
Genesis author's belief that all men and women were created "in the
image and likeness of God."
Paul seems to be presenting Jesus in what
theologians later would call His "human nature:" those aspects of
His personality with which all humans can identify. Like us, Jesus had to
choose whether He'd live His life seeking equality with God, or emptying
Himself and identifying with the lowest of humans - a slave.
The irony for Paul is that only when Jesus
humbled Himself in that way - "becoming obedient to the point of
death, even death on a cross" - did "God exult Him, bestowing on
Him the name [Yahweh] which is above every name." Paul believes Jesus'
divinity is rooted not in His pre-existence, but in His determination to
become totally human.
Remember that the context in which Paul places
this revolves around the Philippians' aversion to identify with those
individuals in the community whom they judged socially beneath them.
Immediately before Sunday's reading begins, Paul commands, "Do
nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others
as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his or her
interest, but everyone for those of others." That's exactly what
Jesus did when He emptied Himself.
That's why the first reading (Is 50: 4-7) is
so important. It contains the best description of a disciple of God in the
entire Bible. "Morning after morning," the prophet says, Yahweh
"opens my ears that I may hear." God's true followers hit the
floor every morning listening. And, often, what they hear comes from
"the weary:" those on the fringes of society, the
"slaves" in our culture.
As we listen to Matthew's Passion narrative
(Mt 26: 14-27, 66), forget about Mel Gibson's non-biblical movie on the
subject. Unlike Gibson, no evangelist concentrates on Jesus' physical
suffering. Their goal is to help us appreciate the pain that comes from
emptying ourselves for others. Matthew wants his community to concentrate on
Jesus' determination to give Himself, even when some of the recipients of
His generosity betray, desert and deny Him.
Perhaps one of the most significant parts of
Matthew's narrative is his easily over-looked remark, "There were
many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from
Galilee, ministering to Him."
Could it be that the historical Jesus gained
the strength to go through His crucifixion by making eye contact with that
small group of followers who were willing to empty themselves enough that
afternoon to identify with a condemned criminal? Those who had learned from
His giving gave Him the strength to complete that giving.