September 23, 2020
Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains one of the most ancient texts of the New Testament. In this reading, Paul is quoting a pre-existing hymn to Christ. Most Bibles give evidence to this by indenting the text. You can also notice a “downward” movement in the first part—“Though he was in the form of God…he emptied himself taking the form of a slave…accepting death on the cross”—and an “upward” movement—“Because of this God greatly exalted him…bestowing upon him the name which is above every name…so that every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The context is that Paul has heard that the people of Philippi have been “filled with themselves” and have not been very kind to others. Paul is actually very sarcastic when he introduces this topic. He is hoping people will change if there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy! He wants Philippians to “complete my joy” by being different: “Being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”
Given what Paul is asking—that people think not first of themselves, but others—he provides the greatest reason for this change: this is what Jesus Christ was like. He did think first of himself, but rather gave of himself completely, accepting death, death on the cross. Paul is trying to motivate the people of Philippi to follow this example with the hope that this is pleasing to God. Their reward is that God will greatly exalt them as God exalted Jesus. They will be seen as “Christ-like” and they will discover that he treating others generously, fairly, and lovingly will lead not to the diminishment of life, but rather to the fullness of life. Or, as Jesus says, “If you want to save yourself, you must lose yourself for my sake and the sake of the gospel” (Mk 8:35).