Saturday of Week 30 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:18-26

Today we are given a marvellous and inspiring testimony of commitment to Jesus and the work of the Gospel.

Paul is in prison but, in spite of that, “Christ is proclaimed”. One senses here a throwing down of the gauntlet – no one can stop the preaching of the Gospel. The work of spreading the Gospel will always go on. And that makes Paul happy, especially if, as may well be the case, he has been imprisoned by people who wanted to prevent him evangelising.

Just before our reading begins, he mentions people who are preaching in competition with him and are envious of him. These, he says, are preaching from “selfish ambition” and hoping to cause trouble for Paul while he is in prison. But for Paul, this is not a big issue.

As long as the Gospel of Christ is preached, he is not too worried about some people’s motives. “What difference does it make, as long as in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed? In that I rejoice.” It is on this note that our reading begins.

In the long run, the continued preaching of the true Gospel will be for Paul’s own good too. He is confident it will bring about his release (which clearly happened).

Much of this Paul attributes to the prayers of the Philippians on his behalf, and the help and support he received from the Spirit of Jesus who is, of course, also the Spirit of the Father.

In a magnificent statement he says that his one great hope is that he will never be overcome by adverse circumstances to abandon his belief in God or his commitment to the Gospel but, that on the contrary, he may always have the courage and boldness for Jesus and the Gospel to be glorified through his words and actions, whether this happens by his living or dying. He fears that the circumstances of imprisonment, with all its attendant suffering and oppression, could constitute a real temptation for him to abandon the Gospel and his resolute service for Christ.

As the Jerusalem Bible comments,

“By baptism and eucharist, a Christian is so closely united to Christ that his life, sufferings and death can be attributed mystically to Christ living in him and being glorified in him. This union would be particularly close in the case of an apostle like Paul.”

Then follows one of the most inspiring passages in Paul’s letters and indeed in the whole New Testament. Paul presents himself with a choice which most of us would probably make very quickly. It arises from his opening words: “For me, life is Christ, and death is gain.” Jesus is the totality of his life; outside of Christ, everything else is relative.

On the one hand, death would mean so much more, an intimate and never-ending closeness to his beloved Lord. And yet – by staying alive he would be able to carry on the work for the Gospel and the building up of the Christian community, which is proving so fruitful.

He genuinely does not know which to choose; he does not know which would be the better thing for himself, for the work of the Gospel and for the glory of God. This is his dilemma: that, for himself, it would be so much better to die and be united with his Lord. It would spell the end of all his pains and sufferings, difficulties and disappointments but, for the sake of his beloved Philippians and all his converts, staying alive is clearly the greater need.

In fact, he is convinced (and he was right) that he would survive and be able to be with them for the greater increase of their faith and joy. (This is quite a different situation from his tearful farewell to the Christians at Ephesus, which is recorded in Acts 20:17-38.)

We have here an extraordinary example of what is called in Ignatian spirituality “indifference”. “Indifference” in this context does not at all have the meaning we give it in normal usage, a sense of not caring, of having no interest. Indifference here involves – as it clearly does in Paul’s case – a great deal of concern. The concern is to conform as perfectly as possible to God’s will but to be willing to follow unconditionally wherever that will leads me.

As St Ignatius puts it in his Spiritual Exercises, such a person does not ask for a long or a short life, for health or sickness, for wealth or poverty… but only that God be praised, loved and served in all things.

This is exactly Paul’s position. His first passion is the love and service of Jesus, and he is perfectly willing to accept either life or death, whichever brings him closer to his Lord and pleases him.

Probably, most of us are still some distance from such a level of commitment, but let us pray that we gradually grow into the wonderful degree of freedom which Paul’s words reveal.

For, let us be clear, we are dealing here with freedom and choice and not some kind of passive fatalism. Paul is not saying that he does not care what happens to him. On the contrary, he passionately wants what his Lord wants and he positively accepts what his Lord will ask of him. His desire is that his will and God’s will coincide perfectly.

That is the ultimate goal of our lives. It is worth pursuing. It calls for great freedom and brings true happiness.

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