Reflection for the 16th Sunday. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
“Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother!” That is considered the most famous line of the French-Algerian thinker and Nobel Laureate, Albert Camus.
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us two seemingly contradictory images of Jesus. Having returned from their hectic first missionary journey, he calls his apostles away from the persistent crowd to catch some rest.
However, hardly have they settled down to rest than the crowd found them out. Taking pity on them (the crowd) as they looked lost “like sheep without a shepherd”, Jesus calls off his rest and began to minister them.
Thus, we have an initial image of Jesus as uncompromising; switching off on a needy and helpless crowd to have his break once it was time. Thereafter, we have the image of Jesus as compassionate; calling off his well-deserved rest to attend to a persistent needy crowd. So, which of the two is the true image of Jesus?
As usual, people would decide based on which image that suits their own personality. Strict people will hail the principled Jesus while flexible people will hail the Jesus that is willing to compromise. But as the model Good Shepherd, here, Jesus helps to resolve the kind of tension that exists in the life of every committed Christian who struggles today to adapt to the demanding pace of life.
Jesus demonstrates that on the one hand, there is the need to withdraw intermittently into a quiet place, to recollect oneself and recharge one’s spiritual batteries. But at the same time, we need to respond generously and empathetically to where there is real need.
The emphasis is on ‘real need’ and not just on wants or our own desire to be in demand. This calls for discernment.
There will be times when, in spite of the criticism it may generate, we ought to say ‘No’. We need to retain that capacity for critical separation which allows one to be in control in the face of the often chaotic circumstances of daily living. We need to be available but with a clear recognition that we are limited.
In the life of Jesus, we see him at times withdrawing into prayer in spite of the people’s demands. He is not stampeded into action. Sometimes he even seems to deliberately ‘waste time’ in prayer while they look for him.
As he called out the apostles to chill out in today’s Gospel, he often recommends that one be not harassed. We gain so much from such retreats both physically and spiritually.
Among the available chill out times are the summer vacations which, for most people, are the only occasion to relax with family, read a good book, and contemplate God and nature in silence. Holidays are ruined if they unwittingly turn into frenzied time like the rest of the year. It is vacation so vacate work!
Such times to chill out are important for all including the hustler Igbo businessman of south-eastern Nigeria who is today aptly mocked in a trending video clip where he kept breaking his prayers as he is at the same time haggling with a customer. But it is all the more important for ministers who must constantly stay in contact with the Source of the message they preach.
Some ministers pitiably pride in working all year round without taking a break as a way of demonstrating their commitment. No, if you are not being too selfishly attached to the ministry, then realize that the quality of your service is going down, obeying the law of diminishing returns.
However, like Jesus in the later part of the Gospel, there will be times when we have to say ‘Yes’ even if with difficulty. A defining moment in my many years of formation to the priesthood was a certain evening as I was about to give a haircut to one of our formators, a seemingly holy priest. A very distressed and tearful young girl walked in. Her dad was dying at the hospital and she had walked the very long distance to the seminary to look for a priest because her local parish priest was not available.
Time was therefore of essence. I was scandalized as the priest dismissed her off-handedly saying that he wasn’t her parish priest and settled into the chair for the haircut.
Providentially, a car pulled up as the young girl stood rattled. It was one of those we considered ‘unspiritual’ priests. Seeing the girl in distress, he asked what it was. As soon as she mentioned that her dad was in the hospital, he asked her to jump into the car while he picks up his sick call bag. And as he drove off he quipped: “Brothers, the Church is still apostolic!” That echoes in my head till this day.
Jesus demonstrates that one must be ready to interrupt even one’s deserved break and make the sacrifice to respond to a neighbour in grave need. Like the philosopher Albert Camus, time comes when we must go out of our way and choose to give up right for love. We live today in a hectic world where the cry “I have no time!” is constantly heard by priest and lay person alike. Yet, when we think about it, we have so much time before the television watching Big Brothers’ House. We have so much time going window shopping or gossiping. We pray for the discernment and will to be responsive Christians and shepherds.