As a student in Vienna, Austria, I did a summer internship in a center for quadriplegics. On Sundays a priest came to the center to celebrate mass for residents and employees. We interns went to the residents’ rooms and brought them to the chapel. The beds had wheels and we just pushed the beds through the hallways, into elevators, and into the chapel. Though this is more than 20 years ago I have a clear memory of one of the residents, a woman about 45 years of age, who could only move her head. She spent day and night strapped onto the bed. From time to time the nurses were changing the position of the bed but otherwise there was not much variation in her life. Yet, despite her severe disabilities and limitations she radiated deep fulfillment and genuine joy rooted in her deep faith. When we brought her to the chapel, she was joking with us, and spoke how she loved Christ, and how grateful she was to be close to him.
She came to my mind when I read the first reading of today’s mass, taken from the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that “God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong.” This resident did not have very much to offer that is important in human societies: she could not work and could not contribute to her family, her country, and humanity. She was more of a burden who had to be cared for constantly. However, she had a strong and joyful faith that eased the suffering and the pain of other residents, gave strength to the employees at the center, and guided us young interns to a faith in Christ. She was a source of strength and joy to others. I am convinced that God was at work in her, giving her a clear vision of life and provided her with strength to cope with her limitations. She allowed Christ to be part of her life and the presence of Christ was felt through her, directly and nearly unmediated, and not covered by her own talents, actions, and thoughts. God chose this weak person to show himself to us.
This text from the letter to the Corinthians seems to contradict today’s Gospel taken from Matthew. The text speaks about “the things that are strong” through a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ compares the Kingdom with a man entrusting his goods to his servants. The faithful servants use the goods wisely and generate more goods with what they had received. The lazy servant, however, did not use the goods and later returned to the owner what he had received without adding something to it. The man in the parable is God who gives us, his servants, certain material, intellectual, spiritual, social, or other gifts. We are called to make use of these gifts! This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is about: we use and increase our talents, wisdom, and resources. By doing so the Kingdom will increasingly become a reality in our lives, God will be powerfully present in our world.
The two readings only seemingly contradict each other. The first reading praises the weak and the second reading lauds the strong. In reality, however, the two readings provide answers to different questions. The Gospel addresses the involvement of Christians in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their nation, and in global issues. Christ encourages us to use whatever we have received and not to be passive, uninvolved, and unconcerned. The first reading has a different focus. Paul reminds us that whatever we are doing should not be about us alone. We are not the center of the universe; God is the center and his Kingdom should be our goal!
When we use our gifts and strengths to volunteer participating in a project supporting the homeless in our city, we do so motivated by our faith. When we use our talents adopting an environmentally friendly behavior, we do so to praise God through his creation. When we use our wisdom intervening to solve a conflict at work, we do so inspired by the Good News. Obviously, we can be proud of our strengths – there is nothing bad with that! – but the Kingdom of Heaven should not be hidden underneath our ego. That’s what the first reading tells us and what the quadriplegic resident in Vienna taught me.
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