Jotham, the son of Jerubbaal who survived after his 70 brothers had been slaughtered addressed the people of Israel at Shechem in the form of an imaginary conversation that is intriguing. He said: One day, the trees decided to anoint one of them to become their king. They approached the Olive tree, but the Olive tree said he could not forgo his oil which gives honour to the gods and men. He did not think he could make such a sacrifice.
The trees approached the fig tree but he said he would not forgo his sweetness and excellent fruit just to be king. The trees then approached the vine but the vine said he could not forgo his wine which cheers both gods and men. Then the trees approached the thorn bush and the thorn bush said to them: If you are anointing me in good faith to be your king, then come and shelter in my shade (Jgs. 9: 7-15).
The import of this story is not so much how much it relates to the rest of the chapter and the fate of Abimelech whose usurpation of power had brought about this image.
Today, we gather to bring in one of our sons to join in the ministry of the Diaconate, a ministry of service that dates back to the beginning of the life of the early Church. The Diaconate offers us an opportunity to think clearly about our lives as priests, a life of service and devotion to the people of God. However, it is easy for both the candidates and we the priests to mistake the importance of this office. It is easy for us to concentrate on the transitory nature of the office and simply focus on it as the final lap in the journey to the priesthood. This is a serious mistake.
First, the life of Jesus was a life of service and devotion. He went about doing good (Acts 10:38). He washed the feet of his apostles (Jn. 13:17). He meant to draw out attention to the importance of this service which was at the heart of His mission when he said: Behold, I come among you as one who serves (Lk. 22:27). He finally ended this life of service by offering his body to us, commanding us to take and eat, take and drink (Mt. 26:26). How does this impact on us today as a Church and a society?
Today, we priests must wake up to our duties of service because it seems that both we ourselves and our people have gotten the message and the essence of our lives mixed up. It seems that most people now associate real service with the religious, especially the female religious. They are the ones who tend to the sick as nurses, they care for the elderly and the weak, they care for our little children both in school and within the church and so on. There is the tendency in a patriarchal society for us to see our role as men in more muscular terms while we see tenderness as an effeminate activity. We see this even in death, when it is the women who wash the body and prepare almost everything. The temptation is for us as priests to simply be called upon when all the hard work has already been done and finished. We simply come for the ceremonies, the liturgy or the ritual.
We can take this to real life where it is even worse. For a man to be seen to be carrying a baby even if his wife has twins is sometimes considered a bit unmanly. Carrying a baby may be excused if the baby is a boy and is especially a firstborn child. But for a man to be seen carrying a baby as an act of helping his wife, or cooking because his wife is giving the children a bath, or washing the plates because his wife is putting the twins to bed is unacceptable. The only place where this is almost compulsory is in Europe where jobs tend to be shared and men, even Nigerian men cannot do anything about it! In some cases, they risk sanctions if they default in their domestic duties. Those who have proposed a paternity leave for men so that they can help their wives in bringing up the children are grossly mistaken because real men do not to these things. But, we are Christians and what should all this say to us?
If we go back to our story, the real challenge is what do we do with our talents? As we saw from the various trees, the problem was that being king was considered a deprivation. So, no tree wanted to surrender its selfishness. For us today, there are many reasons why we too fail to serve. Some of us are like the various trees, holding on to our gifts due to selfishness and refusing to share. How often do we all cling on to things that they consider to be their own, cars, money and so on? Yet, when things get difficult, we all suddenly remember that we are children of the Church. The car belongs to me. I bought it with my money but when there is a problem then it becomes a church car. Some of us say, I got my degree through my hard work and so, the benefits should come to me. Some of us claim that our earthly families come before our family as the clergy.
Jeremiah tells us today to gird our loins (Jer. 1:17). Jesus said to his Apostles: Be dressed and ready for action and keep your lamps burning (Lk 12: 25). My dear brothers and sisters, we are called to a life of service. We have many men and women who have set the pace for us to follow. The lives of Mother Theresa and her service to the poor, the life of St. Francis of Assisi who saw wealth and turned his back, all these should teach us about how to see our lives as men called to serve the people of God.
We live in times when the call to service is increasingly under scrutiny. It is easy for us to take so much for granted because we believe that the Church is not a Democracy and we cannot be voted out. However, as we can see, life has become so difficult that we priests are being called upon to do more than we consider to be our work. Elsewhere, to be a priest is a relatively less demanding. In Europe and America, the work is somehow regimented as Secretaries and volunteers are doing a lot of work. The priest seems to focus only on the administration of the sacraments. But for us here, the demands include being called upon to look for jobs, pay hospital bills, school fees, Rent and so on. More and more of our people continue to see us as merely channels of charity. All this is good, but we must be clear of our roles as pastors and carers of souls.
Finally, we congratulate our brother, Habila. However, as I said earlier, do not fall into the temptation of counting the months or days to ordination. Your work in the vineyard has already started. You cannot be good priest without having been a good Deacon. So, start in earnest and enthusiasm and listen as the Lord speaks to you and calls on you to serve His people. Endeavour to serve him with all your strength and heart (Matt. 22: 37).
It is important that we bear in mind the words of Jeremiah saying that before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. This means that we must constantly remind ourselves of the words of St Paul who asked: What do you have that you did not receive? And if you were given what you have, why are you bragging as if it weren't a gift? We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us (1 Cor. 4:7). May God the giver of all good things enable us to use our gifts wisely because it is on the basis of the use of these gifts that we shall be judged.
That is why we must say with St. Paul, Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). May the Lord who has called us into the vineyard help us all to serve in joy. Amen.