A hallmark of the modern age is an obsession with individual rights. It seems that every other day somebody is demanding his or her rights. Some people even demand rights that are not even written down anywhere or recognized by any legislature or court. Self-interest reigns supreme.
Have you ever noticed that the Bible says little about us defending our own rights but is replete with exhortations for us to defend the rights of others? We are told to defend widows and orphans, even if we are not widowed or orphaned.
We are told to speak up for the voiceless even though we have a voice – especially if we have a voice. We read in 1 Corinthians 10.24: "No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbour."
In Philippians, the Apostle Paul tells us to "humbly regard others as more important han yourselves." He then uses Christ as the example of the attitude we should have. He says, "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross" (Philippians 2.6-8).
It was part of the Second Reading for the March 24 Mass. Although Christ was God made man, he did not "regard equality with God as something to be exploited." In order to serve in human form, Jesus refused to exploit his divinity. Remember, the King of Kings was born in a stable.
Working for the good of others rather than yourself is a way of finding purpose to life. But to "humbly regard others as more important than ourselves" requires a healthy self-image.
Jesus knew he was the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. This unshakable truth could not be altered even by human rejection and the death of a criminal: He emptied himself in obedience to death on a cross for a higher calling and, as we read later in Philippians, God raised Jesus up and gave him a name above all names.
You may think there is an apparent contradiction about regarding others as more important than oneself when Jesus said we should love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39).
In Pope Benedict XVI's book The Yes of Jesus Christ, the former pontiff addressed the apparent contradiction between Christian self-denial and self-love. He said, "But this means that self-love, the affirmation of one's own being, provides the form and measure for love of one's neighbour too. According to this, self-love remains a natural and necessary thing without which love of neighbour would lose its foundation."
There is no contradiction: proper self-denial lived in love requires knowledge and confidence that we are loved with immense and unfailing divine love regardless of our circumstances. With this as our foundation, we can step boldly into service to others. Only when we know that we are loved are we are able to love ourselves and others.
The person who understands that he is worthy of love is apt to realize that others are worthy of love too.
This understanding is the root of a great blessing I was given by my earthly father. Although he died when I was 16, he surrounded me with love and acceptance from my birth. I continually saw him in Christian service to his fellow man.
The extension from self-love to concern for others seemed natural and proper to show God's love. My father called it shoe-leather Christianity. It is a legacy that has stayed with me throughout most of my life. The epitaph on my father's tombstone serves as a constant reminder to me of this. It says, "He served God and man."
People who have experienced a deep encounter with the living Christ rest secure in the knowledge that God loves and values them. They do not need to demand their rights. Their citizenship in the kingdom of God is secure and surpasses the rights of any earthly citizenship. Earthly kingdoms will all pass away but the kingdom of God will last forever.
Those of us who are considered losers by worldly standards are still winners by heavenly standards. Heaven does not operate by the same rules as this world. Many who are last on earth will be first in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10.31; Luke 1.50-53).