Had you ever noticed the number of flat-out contradictions in scripture? For example,
• the last shall be first;
• lose your life to find it;
• take the lowest seat if you want to have the highest;
• the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served;
• a virgin will conceive;
• an old woman with an old husband will give birth to a child.
and so on.
We might have said that if we want to be first, we would have to get into the front of the line, not the end. And, if we want to be alive, we must make some moves not to lose our lives. And so on. These are common sense, aren’t they?
Instead, this Sunday’s readings are introducing us, gently and partially, to ways in which such common sense opinions do not go deep enough. Try this on:
We have to be like lifeless, empty earthen vessels, so that God can pour life and love into us.
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 and furnishing a little room on the second floor of her house, with a bed, table, chair, and lamp for him for whenever he visits. Another contradiction: she is childless, yet Elisha promises that in one year she will be fondling her own baby son. She is shocked. But the promise comes true.
Then, when the boy becomes a young man, he suddenly dies (2 Kings 4:18-37). Elisha comes from twenty miles away and brings him back to life.
Life is given twice where there was no hope of life: death triumphing but life restored. It is contradictory, but is this the way of the Lord?
Then in the Second Reading, St. Paul writes to the Church in Rome that they are baptized into Christ’s death and are buried with him!
A grim statement. But then Paul says, if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him, shall live a life in God (Second Reading).
Die in order to live?
In the Gospel Jesus makes a most enigmatic, not to say contradictory, statement: “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 away that statement 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 claims simultaneously be true?
I want to suggest a metaphor. A glass has to start out empty in order to succeed as a glass. If it is sealed up, or if it is solid, or if it is already full, nothing can be poured in.
Does this sound like one more contradiction? No. A container has to be empty if it is to be filled.
The same goes for us. We have to be like empty earthen vessels, so that God can pour life and love into us. This is the source of all the “contradictions” in the Gospels and certainly in the readings this Sunday.We have to empty out if we are to be filled up with God’s gifts.