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.

Unlike Gibson

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.