14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Fr. Simham)
IMPORTANCE OF LAY MINISTRIES
Jesus called ordinary men to be his disciples. Jesus then began to train the disciples for their future ministries. In our gospel today Jesus called together a group of seventy-two and sent them out two-by-two, instructing them to preach the reign of God and giving them the power to cure the sick and to cast out demons. Because he thought the work of the twelve is not enough. The actual exercise of these healing gifts must have been sensational.
The disciples were evidently excited when, after a brief initiation into the reign of God, they were able to heal diseases and cast out demons. They came back in high spirits and poured out their success story to the Master: “The demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus gently put the lid on their enthusiasm with these words: “It’s good to work miracles, but don’t get too excited about such things. If you want to know what to get excited about, it’s that your names are written in heaven.” With these words, he shifted the focus of their enthusiasm from the natural satisfaction of success to what apostolic ministry is actually based upon– the work of the Spirit within us. Apostolic virtues come not from our natural talents but from a mysterious emptying process in which our talents are put at the disposal of the Spirit rather than of pride.
The disciples did not know what to do with Jesus’ remarks; they had to think them over. It is worth noting that Jesus sent these men out with a special ministry so early in their formation, their fishing nets scarcely out of their hands. In earlier times, it was generally believed that one should spend a long time in preparation for a special ministry, maybe even living a hermitical life for awhile. At the very least, it seemed necessary to go to a seminary or to join a monastery and subject oneself to an austere regime or to a highly disciplined lifestyle for a time. There is great merit in such a structured environment. Many famous missionaries enjoyed that kind of preparation for their ministries.
But here is the paradox. Whatever the value of such an approach to ministry, it is not the way that Jesus prepared his disciples. His method was similar to that of a swimming instructor who throws his students into the water. Jesus gave his disciples a ministry for which they were totally unprepared, knowing that they would enjoy a success for which they were even more unprepared. In our day many ministries a re-emerging for lay folks that have not existed for centuries–counsellors, administrators of parishes, liturgical ministers, justice and peace witnesses, social workers. These people often have to begin their ministries with little or no preparation. One wonders whether we should insist on adequate preparation or put more faith in the way that Jesus launched his disciples– jump in and see what happens. At least there was no danger of his disciples thinking that their success was due to their study of scripture, theology or the length of their preparation. The inexperienced disciples knew that their success could only have come from the empowerment that Jesus had given them.
In our day, there seems to be less and less time for a prolonged preparation for any ministry. The demands are great, the harvest is plentiful, and some ministries are so difficult that it would take a lifetime to prepare adequately for them. The only choice is to start ministering.
Thus the Gospel encourages the ministries of our time, but with this caution: Don’t expect success. The seventy-two disciples had immediate success. Perhaps they were granted instant success because Jesus wanted them to realize their inability to handle it. In every ministry, success is normally accompanied sooner or later by trials, disappointments and failures.
In and through the ups and downs of ministry, God purifies the minister. Like the seventy-two disciples, he may throw us into a demanding form of service to let us find out right away that we can’t do it on our own. A special mission is not a sign that we are holy; it is a challenge to become holy. The path to holiness is the experience of failure, and failure is certain if we are thrust into a form of ministry that we are not adequately prepared for. If we were fully prepared, it would be a lot easier on our families, friends, superiors and–above all–on our own self image. As it is, people are bound to get upset with us– and we may become thoroughly discouraged with ourselves. We need to understand that we only grow in ministry through the experience of failure and humiliation. It is by becoming humble that one is able to practice ministry rightly, and humiliation is the path to humility.
In order to understand this teaching of Jesus more concretely, I offer the following tips. If you want to find out what a poor monk or nun you would make, join a monastery or convent. If you want to find out what a poor priest you would make, get yourself ordained. If you want to find out what a poor meditator you would make, start meditating. If you want to find out what a poor prayer you would make, try to pray. If you want to find out what a poor husband or wife you would make, find yourself a spouse.
When married couples experience marital difficulties, they think something is wrong with their spouse. When a priest experiences his inadequacies, he thinks the bishop is no good. When monks or nuns in a monastery enter the night of sense, they think something is wrong with the community: “If the rule was better observed, I would be perfect,” they say; or, “If the superiors were reasonable, I would be in the seventh mansion with Teresa of Avila.”
Love makes us vulnerable. The love of another person (including God) reduces our defense mechanisms. As soon as we trust somebody, we no longer have to be self protective in their presence, and our defenses diminish. Then the faults and limitations that we have never seen or always tried to hide begin to emerge as clear as crystal for the benefit of our friends, relatives, colleagues and spouses. Such difficulties generally indicate that our particular ministry or relationship is working well.
Once we learn to accept failure, love grows. We do not grow by thinking about it or by wishing for it, but only through the experience of failure.
The seventy-two disciples, flushed with success, came to the Lord expecting to get a pat on the back, and all he said was, “Don’t get excited about working miracles. Anybody with a little psychic power can do that. What really counts is that you are part of God’s plan. The thing to rejoice in is that you are chosen to become divine and to join me in raising the consciousness of the world.”
Fr. Showreelu Simham