Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30—5:2; John 6:41-51
In today’s second reading, Paul gives the Ephesians
a command that, at first glance,
might strike us as rather strange: “be imitators of God.”

It sounds sort of. . . phony. . . and pathetic.
No one wants to be a copycat, a poseur, a clone, a wannabe.
We like to think of ourselves as those
who march to the beat of a different drummer,
who take the road less traveled,
who think outside the box. . .
or whatever other cliché you prefer to invoke.
We want to be trendsetters,
and not trendy.
We want to be the ones who are imitated,
and not the ones who imitate.

Yet a certain impulse to imitate
seems to be built into our human nature.
Indeed, some have argued that imitation
is at the heart of human desire —
that a major factor in the desirability of something for us
is our perception of its desirability to others.
In other words, seeing someone desiring something
awakens in me a desire for that same thing,
precisely because I see another desiring it.
My desire has less to do with the intrinsic worth of the thing
and more to do with my imitation of the desire of another.

I do not know if all desire can be explained in this way,
but it would certainly seem to explain a lot:
from romantic triangles to professional rivalries
to inexplicable fads like Tickle-Me-Elmo.
I never noticed how attractive someone was
until she started dating my friend;
I didn’t particularly want the job,
until my colleague applied for it;
I hadn’t noticed how much I needed a particular product
until I heard about people standing in line for it.

This imitative element in desire
might to some degree also explain
the conflict that seems endemic in human relationships.
Because my desire is awakened by your desire,
you and I must become rivals in our desiring:
we both want the same object,
but we can’t both have it.
Whether it is a person or a position or a product,
the imitative character of desire
means that my gain is your loss, and vice versa.
And because of such rivalry,
we come to view life as a competition
and others as a threat.
So not only is imitation pathetically uncool,
but the imitative nature of our desire
leads to the very evils
that Paul speaks of in our second reading:
bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling.

So why, then, does Paul call on us to imitate God?
Because imitating God is not like imitating another person:
God’s gain is not my loss.
God is not a rival with whom we are in competition.
God needs nothing.
God lacks nothing.
God is rather the source of all things:
pure generosity without boundaries;
the inexhaustible source of the torrent of life
that pours constantly into our world.
God desires nothing but to share God’s goodness.

This is the God whom Paul calls us to imitate
by being “kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
Our imitation of God, our desiring what God desires,
is the medicine that can heal our rivalries.

But how is this possible?
How can a mere human being imitate God?
We should always remember
that we are created in God’s image and likeness,
so that if we can manage, through God’s grace,
to be the people God created us to be,
we are already imitating God, being God’s image.

And we see what this looks like
by looking at the life of Jesus.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh
and the image of the invisible Father,
but he is also fully human,
like us in all things except sin.
In him we see what it means
for human beings to be the people God created them to be.
To desire what God desires
is to desire to live the kind of life Christ lived.
As Paul tells us: “live in love, as Christ loved us
and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God.”
Or, as Jesus says in our Gospel,
he gives his flesh “for the life of the world.”
To imitate God is to imitate Christ,
who holds nothing back,
who sees no one as his rival
and desires nothing but to share God’s goodness,
who goes to his death rather than live in any other way.

Some imitate Christ in a quite literal way,
by laying down their lives for the cause of God.
These we call martyrs and we rightly venerate them.
For most of us, however, this imitation
happens in small, undramatic ways.
It happens when we rejoice in the good fortune of others,
and manage not to see their gain as our loss.
It happens when we desire to live our lives
in service of those less fortunate
and to see in their flourishing our own flourishing.

So in the coming week, take some time to reflect on your desires
Do they foster in you a sense of rivalry with others?
Or are they the desires of God, the desire to be more like Christ,
the desire to live a life of joy and generosity?
And as we discern the source of our desires
let us pray that, through the grace of Christ,
we might become imitators of God.