These words from our Lord are found in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 13, in which our Lord has gathered with the twelve for the Last Supper. The message comes as Jesus is washing the feet of His beloved Apostles. The ending to the verse adds, Nor is he who is sent greater than He who sent him.
We bring forward these words as we ponder the teaching today from St. Paul in his first letter to the people of Corinth (1Cor 4:9-16). In this letter, St. Paul pointedly instructs his spiritual children on how, once one chooses to follow where the Spirit leads, one is subject to the same rejection that our Lord experienced.
St. Paul carries his spiritual children to places where he denigrates himself while aggrandizing them. We are weak, but you are strong. We are dishonored, you are distinguished. Is the saint purposefully lauding them to build up their egos? No, he is leading them on the path of humility, and showing them that the way of the Cross is not an easy way.
St. Paul details for his spiritual children the things that he, the Apostles in general, and those who were evangelizing the faith had to endure in their ministries. We see in his description the “least of our Lord’s brethren” from Matthew Chapter 25 repeated in his words. He speaks to hunger, thirst, being poorly clothed, beaten (prisoners), and homeless—all characteristics of those whom our Lord in Matthew 25 encourages us (and St. Paul is teaching the people of Corinth) to care for.
But if this is a veiled reference to Matthew 25 and the least of our Lord’s brethren, St. Paul then takes a turn that shows how and why caring for the needs of such people has merit.
We labor with our own hands. We must not be judgmental of the merits of the needy based on appearance. My father (of blessed memory) spoke of men in the 1930’s who would hitch rides on empty train boxcars, moving from town to town looking for some one or some place that would exchange their work for food or pay. The word in that day was “hobo” - today’s homeless.
Being reviled, we bless. We have no way of knowing how those who are poor, those who are the beggars of our day, might pray for US, the people who give them change, or a sandwich, or even those who give them nothing, who perhaps need their prayers the most.
Being persecuted, we endure. When one has little to nothing, what remains except to continue trying to find the way out of one’s emptiness?
Being defamed, we entreat. Webster defines the word entreat to have the synonym “beg”. St. Paul is defining himself as a beggar, aligning himself with the same people we see who are in need around us—in ever greater numbers—today.
We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. Offscouring—defined as an outcast in one sense, but in another as refuse, matter that is vile and despised.
But a servant is not greater than his Master. The things St. Paul is detailing as that which those who are serving the Church and or Lord are enduring are nowhere near as significant as the reviling and beating and defamation endured by our Lord.
And so if we are to truly be His followers, who are we to look down on the needy, the least of His brethren? Who are we to think that we deserve something better? Who are we to place ourselves on some kind of pedestal, thinking we deserve the best and finest this world has to offer?
St. Paul even teaches us the answer to these questions.
Eph 5:1—Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.