In the first reading for today’s Eucharist (Friday of the 23rd Week in Ordinary Time) we read the words: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” (1 Cor. 9:24) We are again in football season. For older Packer fans the words, “run so as to win” might trigger memories of the glory days of Vince Lombardi. He had something to say about running and winning.
Lombardi was known for the phrase “run to daylight,” and fans may have visions of guards Thurston and Kramer “pulling” to lead the famous power sweep around the end. For some people, athletic imagery may be appealing as applied to the religious and spiritual life. St. Paul did say “run so as to win.”
But athletic language may suggest that we “win” or succeed in our spiritual lives by sheer effort and will power. And what might we “win” through our own efforts?
We may need an interpretation here. Thoughts of effort and struggle and competition may appeal to many American people. But our life of religion and the relationship with God is not an athletic contest.
After all, we have a Master and Teacher who said we needed to lose our lives in order to truly gain life. He said we are to carry our crosses after his example. He said we needed to become like little children. And he gave us the example of kneeling to wash the feet of his friends. This imagery does not reflect our common language of athletic prowess and scoring touchdowns.
The following of the teaching of St. Paul and Jesus Christ does lead to victory, but not something that can be measured in numbers and statistics. And in Christian living, we do not speak of winning while someone else is losing. And so, our “running” may look more like silent prayer, lending a listening ear, reaching out in charity, or speaking out against injustice. It has more to do with letting go of our ego and cooperating with the grace of God than it does with sheer effort or brute strength. Our running in the name of God may sometimes look to the observer more like stumbling. St. Paul also said something about being strong when he was powerless (2 Cor. 12:10)
Thoughts of winning or losing might refer to a kind of measurement or keeping score. We would be better off simply doing our “running” of prayer and good works and leaving any judgment up to God.
-Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.