All of us, especially when we are young, look to other people to learn how to behave and to be inspired by their ideals and lifestyle. They can be mentors whom we know personally, or more distant role models we admire through books or other forms of media. Sometimes they are world-famous; sometimes they are less well known to the world, but important to us, such as our own friends and family members. When I was in high school, we had to write a paper comparing two important leaders. Some kids picked politicians or social activists. Since I was really into origami – Japanese paper folding – I picked two origami masters: one Japanese and one American. My teacher was surprised, but gave me points for originality, if nothing else.
Although often there’s only one part of our role models’ lives that we strive to imitate, we are almost inevitably affected by the person in a more profound way. If people are inspired by an athlete’s skill on the playing field, they will also tend to want to wear the same clothes, and even be influenced by their political views. Many of the role models offered to us by our pop culture are extraordinarily talented in their field – be it music, acting, or business and finance – yet are anything but examples of virtue in their not-so-private lives. Their self-indulgence and irresponsibility give abundant fodder to paparazzi and gossip mongers. (That’s not a real problem with origami masters, by the way.)
In today’s Gospel, we are offered a totally different role model: Jesus Himself, who invites us to “learn from [Him], for [He is] meek and humble of heart.” His life was not focused on getting ahead of other people and fighting his way to the top of His field, nor on getting as much fame, fortune, food and fun as possible. On the contrary, He dedicated His life to serving others, sacrificing Himself to save others, and making known the truth of God’s love and the importance of loving God above the things of this world. The truths He taught us are often unpopular, but they are no less true because of that. He came to bring us the peace that passes understanding, even though we will face conflict when we try to be faithful to the path He revealed to us.
Fortunately, we are not alone as we strive to follow Christ as our role model. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us to guide us and strengthen us. As Christians, we follow this Spirit above all, even when this means going against the natural tendencies of our bodies and our emotions. Those sacrifices in this life are necessary for the life of our spirit, and for us to receive eternal life in heaven, as St Paul explains in the second reading.
We don’t always live up to the ideal that we see in the life of Jesus. It’s no surprise; Jesus is God, and we aren’t. Sometimes we fail. But then we can experience God’s immense love, compassion and forgiveness, as described in the psalm we just heard. Our failure should not discourage us; rather, our experience of God’s mercy should inspire us to trust Him more and to be more forgiving and loving to the people around us.
We still need to look to human role models, because they often seem closer and more tangible. The Church offers us the saints as examples; we learn to imitate Christ by imitating them. But we also can find many good models in our own family, our parish and our nation, and we are called to be role models for the people around us, especially for the young. May God help us learn from Jesus to be meek and humble of heart, merciful and forgiving. And let us pray for all those people who influence the youth of our nation and the world, that they may discover and follow Jesus too, and bring many people to love and follow him.