“You have to look out for number one.” “Take care of yourself.” “Don’t let others take advantage of you.” “It is a jungle out there and you have to look out for your own interests…survival of the fittest you know.” “Everyone for themselves.” “Take a backseat to no one.” We have all heard these little pieces of advice whispered at one time or another by some well-meaning amateur life coach trying to help us get ahead in life. These little words to live by are the world’s wisdom based upon a worldview that emphasizes competition and limited resources. We are encouraged to have a “life boat” mentality. I heard these words myself more than once as I was growing up. The world wants to sell its vision of rugged individualism, with self-made persons and success-driven competitors, to our children to help them survive out there in a tough and lonely world.
In contrast to the wisdom the world whispers in the ears of persons growing up on the streets today we hear St. Paul exhorting his newly formed community of Christians, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” (Phil 2,3f) Wow, now that’s counter-cultural. When we have grown up being fed on a steady diet of worldly wisdom emphasizing self-care and self-interest, the words of St. Paul seem like craziness to us. “Regard others as more important than yourselves…” Hmmm. Does that mean that we allow others to take advantage of us, that we don’t stand up for ourselves, that we are trampled upon in the world? At first glance that is what it looks like to us. It doesn’t sound like very wise or sound advice. But St. Paul doesn’t tell us not to look out for our own interests, just not only for our own interests. We are asked to subordinate our human will to the divine will of the Father. It is not only about me but there is something greater than me in play here. As a Christian, my interests should be the same interests of Christ: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil 2,5)
Jesus had both a divine will and a human will but he was able to unite his two wills in one interest in his earthly life and that was to do the will of the Father and to serve others in love. “Not as I will, but as you will,” Jesus whispered to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane as he was considering the cup of suffering that he would have to drink. He chose the will of the Father out of love for the Father who had so often expressed his love for his “Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Freedom allowed for him to allow the cup of suffering to pass him by but love called him to drink from it in obedience to the Father’s will. Jesus told the disciples at the well at Sychar: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4,34) The interest of God the Father was the salvation and sanctification of all of his children. The Father asked the Son to make this his interest and place the interest of others before his own interest. Jesus realized that he had been sent into the world to be faithful to the Father, not successfulin the eyes of the world, and to lead all people to life in abundance. Love required that he subordinate his selfish interests to the interests of others.
Why would we ever want to follow the advice of St. Paul and consider others as more important than ourselves? Only one reason – love. Without love we are nothing. I could gain the whole world but without love it would mean nothing. Love asks that I lay down my life for others. Love asks that I live my life in service to others. Love asks that I not compete with others as the world challenges me but rather complete others and the work of Christ Jesus, and the work of God the Father, by giving of myself in obedience to the will of the Father in love and believing in the one he has sent. Jesus did it. Now he will give us the grace to do it also.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the parable about two sons, one who said “no” to his Father’s request but later repented and did what his Father asked and the other who said “yes” but never followed up by going out into the vineyard. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” (Mt 21,31) Clearly the one who overcame his selfish inclinations and actually acted on the father’s orders. What will it take for us to do what God the Father has asked of us and listen to his Son?
I know we are all only asking to “get what is ours and what we deserve.” But Jesus is calling us to give up our claims of self-interest and to empty ourselves of vain interest and become servants to love. As Christians we must be willing to abandon any sense of entitlement that we might have and receive everything, even our very lives, as a gift from God the Father. Like Therese of Lisieux everything then becomes a grace for us and we place all our trust in God’s love. He who lifted up Jesus in exaltation will also one day raise us up to glory. Obedience to God’s will may not get us ahead in the world but it will always lead us to a place of eternal glory in the Father’s house.