Thirtieth Sunday – Ordinary Time Cycle C
Reflecting on 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
It’s frustrating not to know more about the world of Jesus and St. Paul. But there is a clue in the second reading today, an actual insider’s joke from St. Paul (or one of his disciples) to the church headed by Timothy in Ephesus.
“I have competed well, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. And from now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me.” Hmm. Why does he use the image of an athlete competing in a race, finishing it and wearing the crown? Could it be that Paul, from his chains, is sending along a little joke about the crazy man on the throne, the dreaded Emperor Nero, the one who would be his executioner? I think so.
By the time this letter was written the whole Roman Empire was laughing at Nero because, at the Olympics in the year 67, he actually bribed the judges to let him compete. He entered himself in six races and, guess what, won every one of them (no competitors allowed). And when he fell off his chariot in the race against himself, he still won and got to wear the victor’s wreath and process around the stadium to thunderous applause-on-demand.
Thanks, St. Paul. All these millennia later, we still get the message. Unlike Nero, we’ll run the real race and we’ll finish it. We’ll keep the faith. And at the finish line, with our last breaths, we will reach for Him who has forgiven us. And the heavens will rejoice that another set of sinners has been lifted onto the Winner’s Podium, to be crowned on high with eternal life in Christ Jesus.
Special thanks to my friend Thomas Smith for the background information given in this column.
Sharing God’s Word at Home:
How do you feel you are doing in “running the race” of faithfulness to your baptismal vows?
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I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).
Like Nero, I run this race all alone. Even when I plod, I still make some progress. When I fall, as long as I accept the grace to pick myself up again, I win and will get to wear the victor’s wreath. God is good.
the word in this writing by Paul that has always stopped me cold is “rightousness”, simply because of my own interpretation of its meaning. Rightousness isn’t something I’ve had as a goal for my life, and have had to make a conscious effort to reduce its presence. The irony of today’s readings is that Luke’s Gospel suggests a different meaning for rightousness than explained in Paul’s writing. I hope that in the end, at the completion line, I will have competed well and kept the faith; but, I guess my own wish is that the crown will be one of forgiveness and mercy, rather than rightousness. Will I have been always faithful to my baptismal vows? Good question: what were those vows? If that was to love the Lord my God with my whole heart, mind and soul, and to love others as myself, I think God would say I’ve done that, even during the dark nights. We are called to holiness, community, mission and ministry, and my own belief is that each of these calls is accomplished by imitating Christ in our lives as much as humanly possible, while offering repentance for our failures. But, there are other things I’m not so sure of. Have I accepted everything handed down through tradition as Gospel truth? Or, some of the exclusionary laws established by man? Not so much. So, I place my soul in God’s hands and trust always in his/her love, grace and mercy.
I was in 2nd grade and I was nervous standing in the crowd of unfamiliar faces at the annual skating meet for Catholic schools. I had practiced hard and was sure of a win. I saw the starting line in the big oval and took my place. The gun went off and my little legs were shushing. Shush, shush they went as I flew on the skates. But when I looked up everyone was a mile ahead of me. That’s when I realized that I was in the race with the 5th graders! To this day I remember only two other things. One, I was not going to quit and two, how wonderful my mother’s arms were at the finish line.
Every time I hear this section of Paul’s letter to Timothy, I am reminded of my graduation from Catholic Biblical School–how we sang this song after Communion and how it was so full of meaning–everyone was moved. It wasn’t just that we had finished, but that we had finished well–celebrating “victories” with Jane, Kathy, Jennifer, so many things . . . It also holds, what I feel like, was a special message just for “our group” at Peg’s funeral this spring.
I was a little surprised by your reflections, Kathy . . . Paul poking fun at Nero? But, I have to say, the more I think about it, the more I love it. I love the idea that we’ve missed something of an ‘inside’ joke–after all, we are only getting one side of the letter writing. How good is God, that even in the absurd–as Nero surely was–God can reveal His goodness and love?
I have to say too, on a little bit of a personal note, I love that Peg was in on the joke before me. I loved that you help me to be surprised and challenged by scripture that is so familiar. It only serves to make it that much more comforting. Thanks!
I always envision Paul breathing hard as I read this … “I have competed well” – breathe – “I have finished the race” – breathe – “I have kept the faith.” – breathe. The last phrase is the one that gets me, that challenges me, “I have kept the faith”. It is the key to it all, our willingness to keep coming back, to get up when we fall down, to fight back the darkness, to just pray.
I pray we all keep the faith of our baptismal vows and that we have the courage to lean on our God when we are weak.
BTW, thanks Kathy for this web site and helping us to all think a little deeper about our faith.
Brebis – I hope you don’t always feel that you run this race alone; allow those of us here to accompany you, and lift you up when you need it.
I just want to thank everyone for stimulating my mind and heart regarding the scriptures. At the moment I am poised to give the final reflection tonight here at St Thomas More Lynchburg where I have been conducting the parish mission.
Thank you all for your prayers and for sharing your experiences of the sacred. They have all been very helpful in my preparation. Gratefully- – Cris
I love Kathy’s suspicion that there is an insider’s joke in this week’s epistle. I wonder how many people noticed there is an interesting rhetorical trick played on readers in the gospel.
Notice the opening line: “He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” First of all, it’s INCREDIBLY rare for the evangelists to intrude on the gospel in this way by introducing an explanation that is clearly editorializing. This is not one of the tricky parables: it’s clear at the end which attitude of prayer is preferred in God’s eyes. So why introduce the story this way? If you pay attention, the moment you hear that this parable is aimed at the self-righteous, what is your instinctive response? That’s right: “He’s certainly not talking about ME!” The evangelist sets us up to choose a side, so we naturally assume we’re one of the good guys, and we are sure the message is for someone else. But that’s the joke: it’s precisely this same attitude that is condemned in the parable. It’s a real dilemma, and at the heart of our call to live as witnesses to the gospel and at the same time to humbly acknowledge our need for grace and forgiveness where we are struggling or weak.
Each week, I read the rich reflections on this site that are composed with such intimate, poetic power. There is a real humility in these personal stories, and a clear reluctance to fall into pride. But I hope that everyone who has had the courage and generosity to share your thoughts knows how brightly your faith shines, how your witness is a light to others who share this journey with you. Thank you for articulating the grace you encounter and the struggles you face as the Word stirs in us each week. You are a gift!
Lee, I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t get any help in running the race. What I meant to convey is that my salvation is my responsibility. God is holding eternal life for me, and I need to accept it. Of course, others are helpful by example and compassion, but only I can accept God’s grace for me. Therefore, I ultimately run the race alone.
And, MichaelCarlos, whenever I hear these readings, my reaction is to pull a dagger out of my heart, knowing that I am one of those to whom it is addressed. I end up in an examination of conscience that’s wholly embarrassing, because I am self-righteous. I do think that I hold to Christ’s teachings better than others. It’s my pride that makes me believe that he is pointing a finger at me . . . and me alone. While I don’t actually pray in thanksgiving for being unlike the sinners, neither do I pray, “Lord forgive me for I am a sinner.”
Running the race seemed easier when I was younger. As an older woman I see the finish line from a different perspective. It isn’t just “a race”, anymore. It is now life. How am I called to finish my life? by Doing? or, by learning to Be in life in a different way? I am starting to read Joan Chittister’s book THE GIFT OF YEARS. I pray that I will learn how to walk (instead of run) the race, to be more gentle with myself, and, in so doing, that I will enjoy my surroundings more fully.
Thanks for your very calming input, Gloria. The race and the competition are seductive. Worse, even frenetic. Thanks for helping me focus on be-ing. – – Cris
What great discussions this week!
Thank you Kathy and Thomas for the background on Nero, all these years reading this scripture and I never knew!
Thinking about the question of running the race,and keeping my Baptismal promises.. I know that throughout my life I have stumbled in this “race” and sometimes I find myself crawling but by the grace of God I keep on going.
I, like Michael Carlos, always find myself intrigued by this Gospel message, and he said it so well..”to humbly acknowledge our need for grace and forgiveness” Amen!
This reminds me of one of my favorite scripture verses in Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”
I plan on reading the book that Gloria mentions, and recommend a great book that I just finished that has enriched my own prayer life, entitled “The Jesuit Guide to almost everything” by James Martin, S.J.
Gloria, thanks for your great input. Being in my later years, it is still a mystery how to BE…there is still so much to be DONE, and sometimes I feel called to DO something about it. And, economic reasons dictate that I still must work, so it seems there is just not enought time to simply BE as often as I would like.
@Brebis…we do ultimately run the race alone, don’t we? I hadn’t thought about it in your perspective. But, with God’s wonderful grace and love, we’ll make it to the end.
What a wonderful week you all provided for the hundreds of readers on this site. The contributions are all so thoughtful and rich. People tell me all the time how much they enjoy reading the conversations.
Jen, how great to hear from you again. Yes, I heard from many of the members of that great graduation class this week. We all hold this scripture from 2 Timothy so close to our hearts because it was the signature scripture of your class. We had all fought hard to finish the race, and the closeness of your class is one of the great fruits of that struggle.
As we near All Saints and All Souls Day, may I ask you all to remember the two members of that class who sang the beautiful song that goes with that text with all their classmates that day? Jen Baxley and Peg Howlin have finished their race. O resurrected Christ, bring them into the fullness of light and life with you.
And may I ask one more favor? I’ve been to two funerals of Biblical School grads this year, and both women died of ovarian cancer. Now, another grad, Mary Ellen Johnson, has been diagnosed with at least Stage Three ovarian cancer. Since I was blessedly healed of that disease, I have the courage to ask all of you to join me in praying for Mary Ellen as she searches for the strength to climb the mountain ahead of her.
All you holy men and women, pray for us!
Oh, I am so sorry. How could I have forgotten that we also lost our dear classmates Jane Mahoney and Dale Monchego that year as well?
And THANK YOU to all who have written to say that you are praying for Mary Ellen. She needs those prayers so badly. She has a steep mountain to climb.
Love to you all—
Thanks so much Kathy and Jen for remembering our Biblical School Class so lovingly. I too hear the song in my head everytime I read this scripture from 2 Timothy, and I tear up, missing those who have gone before us into the Hands of God… Thanks also for sharing the insight regarding Nero and that St. Paul was likely “making fun” of the emperor! It certainly changes the way I read this scripture specifically, and other Pauline texts too!
How do you feel you are doing in “running the race” of faithfulness to your baptismal vows?
Another election season has come to an end. I am so glad! There are too many promises that in reality should not be made and undoubtedly will be broken. But that’s the way of it. We try to take people at their word and then hang on to it.
This Nero story has me chuckling and it makes me think of the political campaign as a race of competitors. Of course, my mind goes off to consider how our world has become so competitive. In some ways we’ve lost the message of cooperation. We compete for the lowest prices on things and send our companies overseas to leave so many people jobless in the US, while people in the third world work in our companies for pittance. We compete with the neighbor for who has more “stuff,” although I think he economy has slowed down the buying just because…. We compete with our ideology, theology, methodology. Who’s right, who’s wrong? We stand against each other. And like Nero, I think sometimes we stand against ourselves. I know that for me it wasn’t easy to vote. I had to wrestle with myself to be faithful to the way baptism calls me to live.
It’s the everyday decisions that demonstrate my faithfulness. What candidate do I support? How do I live a “green” life? What do I recycle? How much “stuff” do I accumulate? With whom do I share what I have and who I am? How do I stand in solidarity with the poor? How do I spend my time? How do I pray and worship? What am I doing to grow in my relationship with a God who calls me to victory, a victory over myself, my false self, my sinfulness? The Faithful One calls me to faithfulness. Hmmm…. Who has priority for me? Whether I walk or run, skip or dance, I know that I have to follow Jesus the Leader. He is the One who invites cooperation, oneness, and community. Do I “run the race?” I don’t have one drop of athletic blood inside me so I’ll just pray, “Jesus, hold my hand. Walk with me? Please.”
What great insights from everyone. Thank you.