Life & Soul

We deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can master our selfishness alone

A detail from Christ and the Children by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again. But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him.”

The Gospels repeatedly record that the disciples failed to understand what Jesus had meant in the predictions of his death and resurrection. The predictions were clear enough, so their lack of understanding seems incomprehensible. Could it be that this lack of understanding was rooted in something far deeper, in the tendency of sinful humanity to hear only the things that it wants to hear?

As the Gospel passage unfolds, Jesus questioned the selfishness that can neither hear nor understand anything that runs contrary to itself. He questioned the attitude that had led his disciples to argue among themselves along the road as to which of them was the greatest. His challenge was a direct affront to hidden pride: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”

If we are truly to understand the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, we must first grasp this selfless humility. If we are to share in this death and Resurrection, then it must begin here and now, in an attitude that is willing to die to one’s self and live for Christ.

Jesus drove this lesson home by embracing a child in the midst of his disciples: “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Only in abandoning the selfish pride that distances us from God are we free to accept a child, an enemy, an imagined rival or a foreign refugee. The list could go on to embrace every petty disdain.

The humility lacking in sinners does not come easily. It is the work of a lifetime. St James set it within the context of “the desires fighting inside our own selves”.

This is something we can readily understand. Until we have reached perfection, selfishness repeatedly asserts itself, frequently doing violence both to ourselves and others.

As James observed, we want something and are prepared to kill, we have an unsatisfied ambition and are prepared to achieve it by force.

Christ’s answer to the uncontrolled selfishness of sinful hearts was his death and Resurrection. We deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can master our selfishness alone.

We can only pray that in Christ we might die to self and be raised up in his selfless grace. Without such redemption we become like the godless described in the Book of Wisdom. We lie in wait for anything virtuous that affronts our pride.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (18/9/15)

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