Had you ever noticed the number of flat-out contradictions that can be found in the New Testament?
• The last shall be first.
• Lose your life if you want to find it.
• Take the lowest seat if you want to have the highest.
• The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
• A virgin can conceive.
And so on.
You and I would surely say that if we want to be first, we really must get to the front of the line. If we want to live we must make some moves to avoid dying.
This Sunday’s readings introduce us, gently and partially, to ways in which common sense opinions, no matter how obvious, do not go deep enough. Let’s look.
Obviously, if you are an old woman with an old husband, you will not have a child.
In the First Reading a distinguished lady in the little village of Schunem shows great hospitality to the prophet Elisha, even to the point of building a little room on the roof of her house and furnishing it for him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp for whenever he visits. She is childless, yet Elisha promises that in one year she will be fondling her own baby son.
She is shocked. She tells him not to lie to her. But the promise comes true anyway. What is more, the boy becomes a young man but suddenly dies (2 Kings 4:18-37), yet Elisha comes from twenty miles away and brings him back to life.
Life was given where there was no hope of life; death triumphed but life was restored. Contradictory in many ways. But this is the way of the Lord, as we know from the new testament.
Second, St. Paul writes to the Roman Church that we are baptized into Christ’s death and buried with him. A grim statement. If we die with Christ, Paul says, we shall also live with him, shall live a life for God (Second Reading).
Die in order to live?
And in the Gospel Jesus makes the enigmatic statement I mentioned above. "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
No matter how we try to explain this statement away and neuter its content, it still means what it says. Losing your life is the only way to possess it. Letting go is the only way to hold on. How can such contrary allegations come together?
To be helpful, I want to suggest a metaphor. A glass has to be empty in order to be successful as a glass. If the top is sealed, or if the whole thing is solid, or if it is already full, nothing can be poured in. It sounds like one more contradiction, but look at it. The glass has to be empty if it is to be filled.
God gives. We have to be empty, earthenware vessels if we are to receive. God will pour life and love into us if we are. And this is the source of every “contradiction” mentioned in the Gospels and certainly on this Sunday.
We have to be empty if we are to be filled with God’s gifts.
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Fr. John Foley, S. J.