31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Reflection: God asks to give are all to our vocation


How many times have you heard St. Paul bashed for what he says about women?

Today’s selection from his first letter to the Thessalonians offers a very different take on Paul’s attitudes. Sandwiched between two readings that berate religious leaders for failing their vocation, Paul’s reflection portrays authentic ministry in distinctly feminine terms.

This, the first of Paul’s letters, is probably the oldest text in the Christian Scriptures, giving us fascinating hints about the life and thought of our earliest Christian sisters and brothers. The Thessalonians, people of Greek heritage, were not steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, so Paul was not concerned about connecting his preaching to them with Jewish traditions. Thessalonica was, so to speak, virgin territory for the Gospel — a situation that called Paul to discern about how to make the Gospel alive for cultures other than his own. 

Coming from Greek and Jewish patriarchal societies in which women’s contributions were undervalued, his contemporaries might have thought Paul had gone off the deep end with his description of his mission. Presumably an unmarried man, Paul compares the way he and his companions approached the Thessalonians to the loving action of a nursing mother.

Steeped in a religious tradition that prized dogmatic teaching and theological debate, Paul described his ministry as filled with gentleness and affection. Finally, closing the circle of images, he said that he and his companions longed to share their very selves with the community — an image of exactly what a nursing mother does for her child.

In contrast to the Lord’s warning to the priests who “have caused many to falter” (Malachi 1), Paul thanks God for the way his word has reached the community as the very word of God. Unlike the officials Jesus criticized for posing as teachers without interiorizing the message they preach (Matthew 23), Paul and his companions strove to give witness by their lives as much as by their words. They rejoiced in the fact that their community has discovered the same power of God working in their own lives.

In this short segment of his letter to the Thessalonians, without necessarily intending to do so, Paul outlined a theology of vocation and ministry. He described his approach to evangelization as being as natural and wondrous as the way a mother’s body produces nourishment for her hungry infant. Because she is willing to provide and because the child is hungry, she is capable of giving of herself in what is one of the most unique and intimate ways any creature can give to another. By describing his ministry as like that of the mother, Paul echoed the Last Supper scene in which Jesus offered his own body for others and commanded them to do the same.

We hear these readings at the beginning of National Vocation Awareness Week (Nov. 5-11). While the bishops’ conference calls this “Vocation Awareness,” the website of the U.S. bishops’ conference concentrates on “religious vocations”: vocations to religious communities, the diaconate and priesthood. In a video produced for the week, several women and men describe the joy they find in living their vocation.

Augustinian Father Richie Mercado explains that the witness of his parents’ joy in their married vocation inspired him to seek what would bring him the greatest joy. He added that anyone will be happy in life as long as they are authentic in their response to God’s call. Highlighting the mystery of vocation, Sister Vicki Lichtenauer of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, described the fit of her choice for religious life saying, “I don’t know if I ever felt like I was falling in love, but essentially I was falling into something.” Each in their own way, these people explain that their vocation has called the best out of them and led them to the service of others.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus ended his tirade about hypocritical ministers with one of his pet themes: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts self will be humbled; but whoever humbles self will be exalted.” Paul’s self-giving response to others’ needs reflects that. By using the image of the nursing mother, Paul assures us that the living of our vocation will come naturally as long as we are willing to be generous and responsive to others.

Paul didn’t ask the Thessalonians to be missionaries like himself. He only asked them to allow the word of God to continue to work in them as it had in him. To say that no one could ask more is an understatement! Young or old, celibate or in a committed relationship, no matter our gender, all God asks is that we give of ourselves exactly as we are — and that we give our all. Then, as happens through the nursing mother, God’s grace will flow through us for the good of all.

Reading 1

(Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10)

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 131: 1-3)

R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

O Israel, hope in the LORD,
both now and forever.
R. In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

Reading 2

(I Thessalonians 2: 7b-9, 13)

Brothers and sisters:
We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly,
that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us,
you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.


(Matthew 23: 1-12)

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”