Two strikingly different images confront us immediately this week: first, Isaiah uses the image of a nursing mother gently tending to her child to describe the Lord’s care for his people Israel (Isa 66:10-14). Contraposed to this beautiful scene we find Saint Paul extolling and finding strength in the cross of Christ, yet at the same time insisting that he has been crucified “to the world” through it (Gal 6:14).
While profoundly different, the two images describe aspects of the same reality which lies at the heart of the Kingdom of God proclaimed in the Gospel: self-giving love. The mother in Isaiah is symbolic of the personified city of Jerusalem or of God; she feeds and protects her newborn children and thus reminds us of how gently we treat those we love and how we want them to be treated by others. For his part, Paul’s brave words about being “crucified to the world” through the cross of Christ call to mind the courage in the midst of suffering that people are capable of demonstrating when their loved ones are threatened.
In both cases the one who loves gives of herself or himself for the sake of the beloved. Sometimes this involves actions that warm our hearts, like the nurturing care of a mother, and sometimes it can involve a trial by fire, as we see in the bravery of one who stands firm under duress. In either case the infinite value of the “other” as a person made in the image and likeness of God impels one to surrender his or her own interests and to give oneself over, trusting that it is in giving of ourselves that we truly discover ourselves and the peace for which we are made.
Today’s Gospel reading helps to resolve the stark contrast of the nursing mother and Saint Paul’s crucifixion language, doing so in terms of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was the core theme of his ministry; all the healings and miracles he wrought and all the parables he taught were directed toward the Kingdom and his invitation to be a part of it. Living as citizens of the Kingdom means demonstrating self-giving love in both the quiet and gentle moments of life and in the existential moments that require the greatest measure of moral strength.
Jesus brings out this message by casting his disciples into the heart of the challenge to give of themselves. As he sends them out two by two he urges them on the one hand to exercise the kindness that we see in Isaiah by offering peace to others, living humbly, and healing the sick, and he reminds them on the other hand that they must speak the truth in love as Saint Paul did, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom, shaking the dust from their feet, and making known the coming judgment (see Gal 6:14-16; Eph 4:15; and Luke 10:5-12).
When the seventy-two disciples returned some of them boasted “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name” (Luke 10:17). Jesus responded with a note of caution intended to bring them back from the temptation of spiritual pride to a renewed focus on extending selfless love to others: “do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18, 20).
The Kingdom of God brings weal and woe; it returns us to our human origins and most authentic being, where we wrestle with letting go of everything in order to discover ourselves in the glory which God meant for us in the beginning. This day let us resolve to live in a manner befitting the Kingdom, living a life of self-giving love, like the doting mother of Isaiah’s prophecy and the courageous figure of Saint Paul.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Saint Paul statue in front of Saint Peters Basilica, Vatican. Sculptor: Adamo Tadolini.