Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 8.)

The website 24/7 Wall St.  annually runs a piece called “The 50 Least Powerful People in the World.” The following paragraph introduces the list:

Fame, fortune, and power in all its forms are glorified in American culture. Entire media networks are dedicated to covering celebrity news and gossip — and television programs that showcase the lifestyles of the rich and the famous regularly draw millions of viewers.

However, power can be fleeting. Circumstances can change rapidly; fortunes can be lost overnight, and the masters of the universe today can wind up unemployable tomorrow.  

The website then lists dozens of prominent people who were once strong and powerful, but who now — through no desire of their own — have become weak. The description and list provide an insight into the values of the day. There is an undercurrent in our times that suggests power, wealth, influence, celebrity are the keys to a good life. The article reminds us that these things are fleeting and do not have any enduring value.

The second reading for today’s liturgy comes from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. His approach is quite contrary to the values of the world mentioned above. One might even say it is opposite of what the world considers the way to a good life. St. Paul writes that it is only when he becomes weak that he indeed will be strong.

His life has a lot of demands placed on it. He is traveling to places unknown to him, most times to an unknown people. He is preaching the Gospel, many times to people who have never heard of Jesus or his way. While some receive and accept St. Paul’s message, others oppose and reject the proclamation. He is met with severe hardships, arrest, torture, natural calamities and more.

He quickly comes to realize that he cannot rely on his own strength to continue. No matter how strong he might be, his mission has to be fueled by someone greater than he. He finds his strength in God the Father and Christ Jesus, his Lord – in Christ Jesus who too became weak, so that he might be strong.

A noted Anglican theologian, N.T. Wright, writes the following about this passage in Second Corinthians:

I like to image the scene in the Christian assembly in Corinth as this letter is read out. There they are, fifty or sixty of them perhaps, crammed into the house of one of the few wealthy Christians in the town. They have just watched their new ideas dismantled from behind with breathtaking skill by the one they regarded as a bit old hat, a bit dull. But the whole point of what he’s been saying is that skill and strength and pride and power aren’t where it’s at. Do we follow a crucified Messiah, or do we follow some happy hero-figure?

Jesus is the prophet of the Most High who is rejected. The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy recalls that rejection in Nazareth or its environs, Jesus’ native place. “How could he be a prophet?” the people wonder. “We know him and his family; surely he does not speak for God.” They become obstinate and refuse to even listen; they have written him off, rejecting him.

Yet he continues on his mission. Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus empties himself in trust and reliance on the Father. In this sense, he becomes weak that we may become strong.

Jesus and the Scriptures that attest to him regularly call us to examine and reexamine our worldview. What is our purpose in life? What has worth for us? What behavior will lead us to life? Where do we find the strength to face the challenges of life? How do we deal with disappointment or rejection? Where do we find consolation? What makes our lives valuable? Where do we find our joy?

Today we are invited to consider these questions not from the standpoint of the world but from that of the kingdom of God. We are invited to become weak so that we might be strong.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.