The recent announcement of a beloved local priest’s retirement was like a call to action on his parish’s Facebook page. Underneath his photo soon appeared hundreds of posts from people whose lives he touched in some way. All of them recognized his early call to service and thanked him for the sacrifices that came with it. Reading all those posts, one could wonder if this priest might have felt a bit like Michael Corleone, the boss retiring from his “family business” in Godfather III, when he says:
“Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in!”
This begs the question: Do priests and ministers ever really retire?
Jesus’ original disciples imitated him by giving their lives to his tireless ministry of forgiveness and truth-telling. When Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive someone who sins against him, seven wasn’t enough. More like seventy-seven, Jesus tells him. Multiply that by the multitudes who came to Jesus and his disciples for healing and one wonders how a true servant of Jesus could ever retire. The real question is how do we view such service? Slavery? Indentured Servitude (done for one’s own ultimate benefit)? Selfless purpose? All three are depicted in the readings for the fifth Sunday in ordinary time.
In the first reading (Jb 7:1-4, 6-7), we hear Job complaining to God about his tortuous lot in life.
Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings? He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
But then comes a happy ending (Job, CHAPTER 42 | USCCB). God acknowledges Job for “speaking rightly” about Him while others lived the folly of not doing so. God tells the guilty parties “let my servant Job pray for you.” After Job offers that forgiveness of prayer to his friends, Job’s life takes a 180 and he retires comfortably, living to see his family grow by several generations.
The comforts Job eventually enjoys aren’t the aim of service, but they can come with the territory—along with the status of being a revered source of Christ’s teachings. But in Sunday’s second reading (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23), Paul warns his fellow Christians not to seek the kind of indentured servitude offering fandom as a perk of preaching:
If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship.
In other words, telling the truth is its own reward. But truth-tellers can also be targets of evil-doers who feel threatened by any light source. This world’s natural inclination is toward darkness, so emitting light is a full-time job from which natural death is the only means of retirement. In Sunday’s gospel reading (Mk 1:29-39) we get a picture of a day in the life of Christ’s ministry:
When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”
Retiring priests and nuns—and preachers of every denomination—soon realize that simply continuing to pray for all the lives they’ve brightened during their ministries will continue to be a full-time job all by itself. Let’s keep pulling them back in.