'Those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great.' -- Luke 18:14

Scholars presume Paul had been dead for some time before the author of II Timothy composed Sunday's second reading (II Tim 4:6-8, 16-18). That enables the writer to do for the Apostle what the evangelists did for Jesus in their Last Supper narratives: create a "farewell discourse."

Our sacred authors are experts in composing such passages. We find farewell discourses in Scripture's earliest books. Jacob gathers his children around his deathbed and delivers one in Genesis; Moses, before his death, is given the whole book of Deuteronomy to speak to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.

A dying person's words are treasured, especially if that person is treasured by the community. Paul went to his martyr's death pleased with his life's work: "The time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

As a child, I couldn't understand why the Roman Empire killed Christians. They seemed rather harmless.

New vision
One needs only read Dominic Crossan's "God and Empire" to understand why Christians so quickly ran into problems. Their imitation of Jesus led them to craft a vision of the world quite different from that of most people.

Christians were committed to changing much of what Rome wanted to maintain. Clashes were inevitable. One of the most aggravating issues for the Empire revolved around Christian men's refusal to be inducted into the army.

For the first two and a half centuries of the faith, followers of Jesus tried to carry out His Sermon on the Mount commands about retaliation and killing. Conscientious objection was the rule for them.

The Christian vision of "how things should be" also clashed with the Roman ideal on lower-profile levels: The class distinctions which had served the Empire well were constantly challenged by Jesus' disciples.

We hear about some of this uniqueness in our first (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18) and third (Luke 18:9-14) readings. Trying to imitate Yahweh's personality traits which Sirach mentions, they started to develop a spirit of "egalitarianism."

In God's eyes
As Sirach states it, "Yahweh is a God of justice who knows no favorites." Social status or hierarcharical distinctions mean nothing to God. All are equal.

Luke's Jesus reinforces Sirach's insight. No two individuals could be on further ends of the religious spectrum than Pharisees and tax collectors. The former observed even the most minute law of Moses, while the latter's association with Gentiles was a sign he was willing to dump the whole Mosaic code.

Jesus and His followers believed their relationship with God was far more important than their relationship with laws.

I often reflect on my Grandma Karban's "farewell discourse." Aware she was dying, she was receiving the Sacrament of the Sick when the chaplain asked, "Do you want to go to confession one last time?" She smiled and weakly replied, "No, thank you, Father. I went last week. I think that was good enough."

Mary Karban was unique, in the Christian sense of that word.