I love infomercials. Not because of the products they sell. But because of how they go about selling them. They take an absolutely unnecessary product and make you think it is necessary. And they make you believe that you are going to get something out of the deal. Call us, and will give you this product at 40% of the normal price. But wait, if you act now before this commercial is done, we will also give six of them free and this nice glow-in-the-dark magnet.
Whatever the product they are selling, marketers have figured it out. If you are going to sell something, you have to show people what is in it for them. For we are, most often in our lives, a “what is in it for me” kind of people.
What is in it for me? Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t just affect the products we buy. It also affects other areas of our life: Our approach to religion and faith.
Take Sasha: She attended church because she wanted to receive the blessings that God grants to those who are faithful. Unfortunately, she thought that those blessings included money, wealth and power. When she was laid off from her job and could not make the payments on her house, she felt God had betrayed her. God had not upheld his end of the bargain. If she was faithful, then she should have been blessed with money and wealth. Right? Sadly, when faith didn’t produce what she wanted, she stepped away from her relationship with God.
And then there was Alex and Cindy. They had not been to church since they were confirmed. Now that they were married with one child born and another on the way, they felt it was time to go back. They had their children baptized and started going to classes themselves. Alex and Cindy knew their family needed protection from the dangers and threats of life. They prayed for this fervently each night and at Mass. When, however, two years after joining the church their son tragically died of cancer, they left the Church and never came back. This was not what they signed up. God had not upheld his end of the bargain.
Finally, there was Mark. He started going to church because he liked the music, and the pastor was a real charismatic preacher. He felt he got a real emotional high from the experience of Mass. However, when the priest was given a new assignment and the musician had to move because of a job change, Mark stopped experiencing that same high at Mass each week. His emotions calmed to almost apathy. When the priest, musician and emotions left, so did Mark.
All of these situations are common experiences. Their results are sad because ultimately the people choose to remove themselves from the support and love of a community. But the most devastating part of these situations is the underlying philosophy that at least motivates, at some level, the decisions of the people. It is the same thing that gets us to buy the useless infomercial product: “what is in it for me.” For Sasha, Alex, Cindy and Mark, what was in it for them in a life of faith was money, wealth, a lack of suffering, emotionally high experiences and entertainment. Their faith became dependent on these things, on what they could get out of it. If they didn’t get it, then they were out.
The disciples in today’s Gospel were not much different. For them, they were interested in recognition, position, and importance. If they followed Jesus, they wanted to sit at his right hand, to be recognized, to be important, to be the greatest. They were looking at a life of faith in terms of what was in it for them. Unfortunately, with Jesus right there in their midst, they missed the point. For the disciples and for us, a life of faith is not about what’s in it for me. It’s ultimately about what’s in it for God, and what’s in it for others. For Jesus tells us: if you wish to be first, you must be last of all, and servant to all.
Now I realize that I may not be very good at marketing. What is being asked of us by Jesus is tough, tough stuff.
Living a life of faith means that first and foremost, we come to Mass to worship God. Not for the music or the homily or the food or the decorations or the fellowship or the emotions or the priest (certainly not the priest). We come to mass to worship God. What we receive from Mass and our own needs come second, God is placed first.
Living a life of faith also means that not only will we still experience the normal suffering of life, but we may even have to make decisions that will cause us more suffering. For we see in the very example of Jesus, who was perfect, loving, and both God and man, that he suffered. Jesus, of all people, should have been free of suffering. Yet he allowed himself to suffer that we might live. He even chose to remain open to his death on the cross that we might be saved. Jesus did not come to abolish suffering, but to redeem it. So how can we expect our lives to be any different?
Finally, a life of faith is not about the blessings we receive, but about the blessings with which we provide for others. This means that others will probably get their way, rather than us. When we have clearly called the front seat when going to the store, we may have to give it up to your sibling. When there is only one can of soda left in the fridge, it may be our siblings who get to drink it, and not us. When both you and your spouse have had a long, long day, it may be you who has to cook the meal. When you work on a project at work with another coworker, it may be him that gets the recognition, rather than you. When the baby is sick during the middle of the night and no one wants to get up, it may be you who has to make the first move. Jesus put our needs and salvation in front of his entire life. If we are to follow him, we must also do so.
At this point most people stop listening. Most people say it is too much and walk away. This kind of life is so difficult. And this is because it is so much a part of who we are to wonder what is in it for us. In a life of faith, it is really about what is in it for God, and for others.
But in case we were a little too worried that we would get nothing out of this life, I think that it is worth mentioning: In the end there may be a reward for us. In putting others first we finally find the peace our heart has longed for. In enduring our suffering through faith in Christ we experience a silence that calms our soul. And in putting God before ourselves we find what we have lost all this time: what it really means to be fully human.
And so the choice is ours. But please hurry, if you act now, before the homily is over, you will receive all of this, and God will even throw in eternity in heaven. But don’t wait around, this is a limited time offer.