11th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Rank Has Its Privilege

I have been a student of the Martial Arts for... well, for many more years than I would like to count. Being raised in a large city, my training began as a means of self-defense; gradually (when I was much younger) it evolved into sport and competition, and now has settled into a means of trying to keep fit and simple physical exercise. I practice a style of Okinawan Karate called Shorin-Ryu Shido-Kan.

Loosely translated, "Shi-do" means "the way of the spirit." Most Westerners understand this to describe the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

As a beginning student one quickly becomes aware of the R.H.I.P. Principle: "Rank Has Its Privileges." This is evident the first time you step into the dojo (the training area). Before and after each class, all the students line up in front of the Sensei (the teacher) according to their rank, signified by the color of their belt. The lowest ranked students - the white belts - stand at one end of the line, while the higher ranked black belt students stand at the other. As training progresses, and the student is tested on knowledge and skill, he or she progressively moves up the line until, one day, he or she takes a place among the black belts - a place of honor and respect.

A beginner dreams about that day. But as a senior student, R.H.I.P. takes on an entirely new meaning. Gradually as the years pass - and the body grows older - you come to the realization that you have come full-circle. You learn that, no matter how many years you may have trained, there will always be others whose technique is stronger, who can focus more clearly, who can kick higher, whose kata is crisper and sharper. At this stage, R.H.I.P. tells you that wearing the black belt is not the culmination of your training; it is just the beginning - a lifelong task of perfecting the knowledge and technique you have already learned, and passing that knowledge on to those who follow you.

In the Christian life, the R.H.I.P. Principle might seem apropos - particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, where we tend to stress the hierarchical nature of church structure. Even in our Liturgies, the Eucharistic Prayers order our petitions according to one's place in the mind of the church: we pray first and foremost for the Holy Father, then our local bishop, then all the bishops, priests and religious. Almost as an afterthought we remember "...and all your church whose faith is known to You alone."

We are, of course, praying for ALL members of the family of faith, but our use of language seems to betray a desire to place everything and everyone into neat, little cubbyholes - into their proper positions within the scheme of things.

The Gospels are full of lessons, parables and accounts of the early disciples vying for position within the ranks of those called by The Lord. Even the apostles argued over who among them would have the higher place within the Kingdom. The woman who anoints Jesus in today's narrative comes with a lot of baggage - not her own, but ours.  We are simply told that she was a sinner who somehow was present at the Pharisee's house... possibly slipping in when no one looking.  She stood behind Jesus weeping and when the time was right, bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with ointment. What we see is a woman who has already been forgiven - without even asking - and her acts are an expression that she realized what she had received and is grateful.

On the other hand, Simon the Pharisee extends the invitation to Jesus for dinner and is pretty proud that his invitation was accepted. Apparently Simon doesn't see himself as a sinner, nor does he acknowledge that, were he a sinner and had faith in Jesus, he too would be forgiven. He sees himself as being part of a different class of people - one who has earned a certain degree of respect and honor.

There were two sinners before Jesus that day: the woman who had experienced forgiveness and was expressing it - and Simon, who wouldn't admit his need for forgiveness, nor recognize Jesus as the way to be forgiven.

Today's Gospel shows us that the issue isn't about proving our love for God by doing heroic deeds and gaining stature within the faith community.  But it is about what Paul says in our Galatians reading.  A person "is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ...."

Beneath the surface of our lives as Christians, this same challenge is played out again. We will be tested as a faith community. Jesus will ask us to walk in His footsteps, to take our place among the ranks, to follow the narrow road, to meet with opposition and misunderstanding - to offer forgiveness and healing when none is expected nor deserved - and, in many ways, to take up our crosses and die with Him. 

This certainly doesn't sound like much of a "privilege."

But we should be clear about our identity and our choices. We need to grow constantly in our understanding of Christian discipleship. We need to take ownership of our faith, and become willing and generous followers of our crucified and risen Lord.

We need to understand that R.H.I.P. does have a place in the Christian life. But it has nothing to do with stature and prestige. These attitudes are born from an elitist perspective of "privilege," and they destroy the Christian spirit of service, expectation and hope.

Our true "privilege" has everything to do with being an active instrument of God in the society in which we live and it extends only so far as our willingness to proclaim that the message is more important than the one who delivers it, understanding that true power rests in humble, generous, repentent and forgiving hearts, and realizing that no matter how far we have come in the Christian life, there are many more miles to travel. Accepting this brings new opportunities for growth and change.

Living our lives in the "Way of the Holy Spirit" means continually "starting over." And that is a challenge for both leaders and followers. Every member of the Christian community contributes to the quality of our faith, our worship, our teaching, and our service. In truth, discipleship is participating with Christ in salvation history: we are the instruments through which God's work on earth is accomplished.

Each of us must reexamine our own commitment to the Christian life. Finally, when we stand before God, how will we answer when He asks for an account of our stewardship?

When we line up in front of Our Teacher will we have missed the point, and still be jostling for a better position?