This week’s readings represent a call to gratitude and humility, specifically envisioned as a rejection of entitlement. That is, the readings all remind us that genuine relationships are not transactions, and so we must not approach our relationship with God expecting some kind of payment or benefit in return. Instead, we must be grateful for the graces we receive and turn to God in love, seeking a relationship and not a tit-for-tat exchange of goods.
For me, the element of Sunday’s readings that highlights this shift in perspective most clearly is the Gospel. Jesus responds to his disciples’ bickering about who is the greatest by placing a child in their midst. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me,” he explains.
As a parent, I know full well that children are not received transactionally. Although people become parents seeking many things, the truth is that children—especially when they come into the world—are not bringing a basket of goods along with them. They demand constant attention and a great outpouring of time, energy, and love. From an economic perspective, a child is nothing but expenditure. And yet, Jesus calls his disciples to receive children in his name, because this is a reminder that this life is not all about us.
As the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, the human person “cannot fully find himself [or herself] except through a sincere gift of [self]” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24). We are called to give, not to take, for that is the end for which we were created. Thus, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all.”
Parenthood is but one illustration of how we can realize this calling. The Catholic conception of vocation embraces this notion by stressing that in our work—a category that goes well beyond paid employment in Catholic social teaching—we have an opportunity to serve others and thereby cooperate with God’s plan for the renewal of creation. (This is, in part, the point of St. John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens).
This vision cuts against the grain of our typical assumptions, especially in a U.S. cultural environment. As the second reading reminds us, typically, we “covet but do not possess” and “do not receive, because [we] ask wrongly, to spend it on [our] passions.” In other words, we approach things transactionally and try to reap our own rewards, when instead we should be turning to others asking what we can give and not what they can give to us.
As the first reading notes, this problematic view often infects our relationship with God. The wicked, who are presented as a foil for the wise in the Book of Wisdom, believe that those who follow God’s ways are supposed to be immune from suffering. This faulty view puts our spiritual life squarely in the realm of transactional exchange: I will worship God for my own benefit, so that I can receive blessings and avoid pain.
Jesus’s own example clearly militates against this facile interpretation, demonstrating that a wholehearted commitment to God is not a surefire way to avoid suffering but is in fact a calling to head right into suffering. We know God will accompany us there, because of the cross. At the same time, we know we must go there, because of the cross. Let us strive, then, to reject a transactional view of our relationships, so that we might receive as we ought, in Jesus’s name. We can start by turning to God anew, and fulfilling the call of Sunday’s responsorial Psalm: “FREELY will I offer you sacrifice; I will praise your name, O Lord, for its goodness” and not because I hope to receive some repayment on the backend.