Spiritual Empowerment


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Few ideas are more popular in our time than the notion of “empowerment.”

People on the liberal side of the political spectrum advocate government programs that “empower” the poor—programs that give those in need a say in their own destinies. Feminists propose regulations to guarantee women access to high-paying jobs. If they receive equal pay for equal work, women can have the same control over their lives that men enjoy.

And people on the conservative side of the political spectrum want to insure that the government doesn’t threaten their freedom to spend their own money and live their lives as they wish. Their goal is letting as much power and money as possible remain with individual citizens.

Each of us will have our own views on these ideas and how they should be applied to particular cases. But we can all agree that the debates are substantial. The poor shouldn’t suffer needlessly; women shouldn’t be regarded as inferior to men; the more money and choice that individuals have, the better.

So important is this topic that it could be said that the Bible can be read as a long series of reflections on empowerment. The heroes of the Old Testament often act on behalf of the people of Israel. Moses leads the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land. Later, the prophet Amos denounces the unequal distribution of wealth that was prevalent in Israel at the time and he condemns the rich for their neglect of the poor.

In the New Testament, Jesus frequently denounces hypocrites who spend more time worrying about their personal religious devotions than about those around them who are suffering.

And in the area of social empowerment, we find St. Paul teaching that faith in the Risen Christ frees Christians from following the customs of society. Members of the church can ignore pernicious distinctions between male and female, or Jew and Gentile, or men and women. People in all categories are “one in Christ.”

At the same time, though, it’s important to realize that the Bible doesn’t always agree with the secular world’s understanding of empowerment.

The First Lesson for today describes St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity. After his spectacular vision of the Risen Christ, Saul—as he was then known–becomes a member of the very Church that he had been persecuting.

Saul is “empowered”—but not in the way we normally understand that term. It is his heart and soul that are given new strength. The vision he gains of what life is about is so transfiguring that he is at first blinded, and then “scales fall from his eyes.”

At the same time that Paul gains freedom in Christ, he gives up his secular authority to act as enforcer for the religious establishment. Paul’s new identification with the church eventually leads to his imprisonment and death.

And in today’s Gospel, too, secular power is irrelevant. While the disciples of Jesus are miraculously given more fish than they can haul in, the gift is not bestowed in order to boost the disciples’ egos. Nor does Jesus care about improving his followers’ standing in Galilee’s fishing industry.

Rather, the miracle makes the opposite point. The bulging nets of the disciples suggest that God’s gifts overshadow any purely human achievements. They strengthen faith in the Risen Christ.

Thus, power in the Bible is linked with belief. The people of Israel are empowered so that they can be a holy people. When the disciples accept that Jesus who was crucified is really there in front of them, their luck at fishing suddenly improves. And when Paul accepts his call to follow the one whom he had been denouncing, he sees how God is acting in his life.

Belief leads to joy. Followers of Christ happily look forward to being touched by God’s power. Belief in the Risen Christ leads to a faith in miracles.

Today’s Gospel reminds us, too, of how we need that faith before we can be empowered. After all, those who fish need to be optimistic. If a good fisherman hasn’t caught anything, he will still hope that a big one is just about to swim in his direction. And that suggests how we should look at the role of power in our own lives.

Sometimes, of course, we need to exercise authority on our own as leaders and as citizens. In these cases, the political concern with “empowerment” is a just one; a fair society encourages freedom and equality.

But we also need to seek spiritual empowerment—help from beyond ourselves. That means that, like those who fish, we’ll need to look for unexpected gifts—the personal equivalent of a full net of fish.

As an example, consider or various human relationships. Secular attitudes tend to assume that we get from our relationships what we put into them, and to some extent, that’s true.

But notice that our encounters with friends and colleagues and relatives are also filled with factors beyond our control. People will think what they think whatever we want. People will feel what they feel and do what they do.

So to be spiritually empowered is not necessarily to be able to get people to do what we want. Rather it will mean joining in a larger plan in which all human beings flourish.

So, for example, I actually feel stronger when I help others to gain power. A teacher is gratified not when he forces students to learn something but when he teaches them to think on their own. He is empowered when they are empowered.

St. Francis’ famous prayer puts it exactly right: “Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

As we examine our own quest for control over our lives and our influences over other people, we need the spiritual vision of Francis. As we seek to give instead of receive, to pardon instead of being pardoned—as we encourage and share and even compromise–as we listen as well as command, we may be surprised to find that our own nets are full!

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