Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 18:9-14
October 23, 2016

One of the lingering images from this past summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is not about a victory, but what some might consider to be a tragic defeat. During a qualifying heat for the women’s 5,000 meters, a little more than mid- way through the race, an American runner bumped into a competitor from New Zealand. Both fell hard. The New Zealander appeared to be overcome with emotion and in great pain. She laid on the track, aware that in a split second her Olympic dreams were ruined. Then, as people all around the world watched, she was roused by a hand on her shoulder. It was the American woman, who leaned down and shouted over the roar of the crowd: Get up! We have to finish this! The fallen runner latter reported thinking: “Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympics Games. We have to finish this.”

Then, forgoing an opportunity to immediately rebound from the fall and make an effort to “catch up” with the other runners, the American bent down and helped the other woman to her feet. The two then supported one another; until they were able to resume the race.

As it turned out, the American had in fact suffered the more serious injury. But she persevered; continuing on the course in spite of excruciating pain; supported by words of encouragement from the woman who only seconds before, she had encouraged to stand up and get back in the race.

Eventually the New Zealander sprinted ahead; but the American did not give up. When she finally hobbled to the finish line, the other woman was there to greet her. Remarkably, both finished the race. They not only competed well…they were excellent competitors teaching the whole world a lesson about compassion, commitment, persistence, gratitude, humility and yes…even love! They finished the race because of one another. And while neither received a gold medal, both wore the “crown of righteousness” out of the stadium.

Our Second Reading this Sunday is frequently proclaimed at funeral Masses. Here, we find St. Paul, quite likely familiar with the sporting events so popular in the Greeco-Roman world, coming to the end of his earthly life. His imagery transports us back to the Colosseum, where cheering crowds urged runners on to the finish line.

St. Paul is using the image of Olympic games to give us a sense of what it means to be a disciple. Like all Sacred Scripture, his words are dramatic and powerful. In fact, over the past several weeks, each of our Sunday Readings have laid out for us a dramatic and powerful description of what is expected of a follower of Jesus Christ.

The training for discipleship is rigorous. Moreover, the race isn’t measured in meters or mile, but in lifetimes. Catastrophic falls and collisions are to be expected. To finish the race, one must be totally committed and persistent… “keeping the faith” in the face of every adversity. To compete well, a disciple must be forgiving of those who crash into us, and knock us down. Likewise, on those occasions when we are the cause of the fall, we must be repentant. Disciples are not oblivious of the needs and safety and welfare of others. Rather, and even if it means interrupting our own plans, disciples stop and care for one another; especially when a sister or brother needs to be raised up. In other words, to cross the finish line to the cheering of the angels and saints, and to be awarded the crown of righteousness, a follower of Jesus Christ is loving. Certainly this is what we have learned from our Readings over the past several weeks. And, during the summer games in Rio, we saw these words in action.

There is something additional about discipleship that is made very clear in this Sunday’s Gospel. True followers of Jesus Christ, NEVER award themselves the gold medal. Quite the contrary. Disciples acknowledge their faults and failures and trust in the mercy of the Just Judge to raise them up and heal them.

And when we see someone fall into sin…we do not judge them, rather we are called to put a hand on their shoulder, speak words of encouragement and help to raise them up…supporting them as they resume the race towards the finish line…no matter how badly they might be hobbling.

As for ourselves…when we fall into sin…because of our own poor choices or because some bad influence has crashed into us and knocked us down…be assured that the Holy Spirit is there to whisper words of encouragement to us…until we say…. I have to finish this! This is Salvation. I have to cross the finish line.”

Now be still for a moment…and you might just hear off in the distance…the roar of the angels and saints…encouraging all who are competing for Christ!