In the 1930’s , a young Jewish woman named Simon Weil applied for a one-year leave of absence from her teaching job in Paris in order to work as an unskilled laborer as a machine operator for Renault. Over the objections of her family, she changed her name, rented a room near the factory, and set about living a life close to that of her co-workers. Simon soon grew ill working long days for little pay.
When Hitler occupied France in 1940, she worked in the Resistance, finally immigrating to England. As a Jew she could not officially join the struggle for France , so she took part in it by voluntarily limiting herself to the same rations the occupied French could get with their food cards. It was all unnecessary. She was an educated person of means, but she refused to make use of her privilege. She had made an interior act of belief in Christ some years earlier but she was never baptized because she wanted to remain an outsider as Christ was an outsider. In 1943 she died, sick and malnourished at the age of 34.
Why did she do it? Why did Simon Weil sacrifice for people who would never know her or her acts of love and solidarity? Why did she deny herself even the consolation of baptism and the sacraments? Perhaps it was because she had truly met Christ in her fellow workers and was determined to join herself to him and them in a self-emptying love. The downward way that is described so beautifully in our second reading today:
Though Jesus was the exact representation of God,
Jesus did not think of being God as something to be clung to.
Rather he emptied himself and became a slave,
being born in human likeness.
Son though he was, he learned obedience,
and it was thus that he humbled himself,
accepting even death, death on a cross.
“He emptied himself and became a slave.” Why did Jesus do it? Because he had committed himself entirely to us and that meant entering fully into our life, with all its vulnerability and the final physical disintegration that we call death. And even more, because he loved sinners he was content to be counted among them.
Jesus tells the parable about the father and his two sons to the Pharisees because they criticized his keeping company with people whom they believed were enemies of religion. He took a simple family – one every dad and mom listening that day could identify with – and he taught a profound truth about religion. True religion is about doing what God wants. “Which son did what his dad asked?” Jesus said to the religious leaders. “The one who said no but then did what the Father asked or the one who said yes but never followed through?” The answer stuck in their throats even as it revealed their hearts. “The one who did in the end what his father asked,” they said. “And how about you?” Jesus challenged the scribes. “Which son are you? They hated Jesus for that story.
The gospel reminds us today that there is a kind of Christianity that fears the wounds of Jesus. Fears the cost of love. A kind of religion that promises to protect us from suffering, to shield us from the disapproval of others. Pope Francis calls this “worldly piety.” In his apostolic letter of encouragement, “Evangelii Gaudium – the Joy of the Gospel” he says…
Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.
Simone Weil’s life became wonderfully complicated because of her desire to unite herself to those suffering under Nazi brutality. God the Son’s life became wonderfully complicated when he chose to become a human being and to be counted as a friend of sinners.
What if today we were to simply ask, “Lord Jesus, help me to surrender the privileges that accident of birth and good fortune have given me. Help me to surrender whatever protects my safe little life. Give me instead the grace of a complicated life; a life wonderfully complicated by tenderness.”