Opening the Word: The least of these

Both the calling of the apostles and their following of Our Lord seem irrational.

Jesus, the one who has come to fulfill the messianic prophecy of Isaiah, seeks out missionary companions. But instead of choosing those with power, he identifies once-anonymous men from Galilee.

These unknown men don’t even seem to be excellent fishermen. All night long they toiled but caught nothing. And yet, it is Simon Peter, James and John who are chosen by the Lord. He brings Peter out into the deep, gathering a large number of fish.

From the perspective of these once-unknown apostles, their commitment to the Lord seems equally irrational. Based on a single catch, and the promise that they are to become fishers of men, “they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:11).

Through this calling of the apostles, we are shown a model for leadership in the Church. Ecclesial leadership was not given to those with the right résumé and experience. It is given to the “least of these,” like St. Paul, who persecuted the Church of God. The most unlikely are those sent to the ends of the world.

The rationale for God’s choice is linked to the Gospel, as St. Paul makes clear. For what is handed on is not the charism of a particular leader. It is not some ideology constructed by a clergyman.

What is handed on is an unexpected story of salvation: “... that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

God has chosen the least of these, the entire human race, to enter into the gift of divine life. Who is worthy to receive this gift of love? Not one.

The apostles are thus a sacramental sign of the salvation of the entire world. Their vocation is to go forth to the end of the earth preaching Christ crucified.

A certain celebrity cult has arisen once again in the Church that rewards bishops, priests, preachers and teachers not for their commitment to the Good News of salvation, but for their prestige: This bishop is more important because he’s a cardinal and thus closer to the power of the Vatican. That priest on Twitter matters more because he has a huge number of followers and thus functions something like a present-day celebrity. This lay missionary is the really important one because he or she is famous, with thousands coming to hear him or her speak.

Such attitudes are contradictory to the Gospel. God is not interested in the prestige of the men and women chosen to preach the Risen Christ.

God instead is looking for someone faithful to the Good News that Christ is the risen Lord. Fidelity here means recognizing that it is not me, my message, my brand, my tweets or Instagram posts that save the world. It is the crucified and risen God-man alone. It is a love that no human person could imagine, which has changed the very orientation of the world.

Ecclesial leaders, whether they’re the successors of the apostles, a lay missionary teacher or ordinary Catholic, need to underline the centrality of this narrative of salvation in their mission. All of us, no matter our vocation or position in the Church, must preach Christ and Christ alone.

When we do, we’ll recognize the same thing Paul did — a vocation to be the least.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.