MISSION OR PEOPLE?
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Acts 11:21-26. 13:1-3; Mt 10:7-13]
In both scripture readings today, the theme of mission comes out strongly. We read that the Holy Spirit told the Christian community at Antioch, “I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.” In the gospel, the Lord instructed the disciples, “As you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. You have received without charge, give without charge.” Indeed, the mission is urgent. Hence, the Lord told the disciples to travel light so that they can travel fast and far. “Provide yourselves with no gold or silver, not even with a few coppers for your purses, with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic or footwear or a staff, for the workman deserves his keep.”
Whilst we should be focused on our mission, there is also a danger that the success of the mission becomes more important than the people we work with in the mission. There are some leaders who are achievers. They set their goals and give all their energy and resources to attain it. These leaders are single-minded, focused, persevering and passionate. But they can become arrogant, insensitive, unfeeling and task-orientated, so much so their collaborators are only tools and agents for them to attain their goals. They evaluate their fellow collaborators or workers in terms of productivity and success. The KPIs (Key Productivity Indicators) are the measure by which they assess their co-workers. They must be useful and productive; otherwise, they will be removed from the team.
Yet today, Barnabas reminds us that whilst mission is an intrinsic dimension of the Church, it is people that are more important at the end of the day. The gauge of success is not how many churches we build, how many communities we have established, how many members we have recruited or how much funds we have collected. It is how we treat people; how we help them to grow, to mature in their faith, to live a deeper Christian life, to be full of joy in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the goal of the mission is to change lives, to touch lives and to help people to live their lives with greater passion, zeal, meaning and purpose through a transformed life in Christ.
For this reason, although Barnabas was very missionary-minded, he was more concerned for those who worked with him and the community that he was sent to. He was a natural encourager. Indeed, his name, “Barnabas” means “encourager.” Whichever community he went to, he would encourage the Christians in their spiritual life. “A great number believed and were converted to the Lord. The church in Jerusalem heard about this and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. There he could see for himself that God had given grace, and this pleased him, and he urged them all to remain faithful to the Lord with heartfelt devotion.” Barnabas built the Christian community through his constant encouragement.
Not only was he a source of encouragement to the community, but he was also very encouraging towards his collaborators. We read that when no one wanted Saul because they were suspicious of his past, it was Barnabas who saw the goodness and potential in Saul. He was able to see goodness even in the weakness of people. Hence, with courage, “Barnabas left for Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. As things turned out they were to live together in that church a whole year, instructing a number of people.”
Indeed, the greatness of Barnabas was that he never gave up on people no matter how hopeless or unreliable they were. He always believed in the goodness of every person. This positive outlook of Barnabas in his dealings with people was not just manifested in his calling Saul to join him in his mission but later on in accepting John Mark as his collaborator. Paul did not want John Mark to follow them in the mission because he was unreliable and irresponsible for breaking journey in their first missionary trip. (cf Acts 13:13) It was Barnabas who sought to give John Mark a second chance. Hence, after a sharp disagreement with Paul, they departed amicably, with Paul taking Silas with him on his missionary trip to Syria; and Barnabas taking John Mark with him to spread the gospel at Cyprus. (cf Acts 15:38f)
Indeed, Barnabas was a man with a good heart. Luke described him as “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.” It was because of his goodness that “a large number of people were won over to the Lord.” He was a generous man. It was in Acts 4:36 when Barnabas was first mentioned. “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” His generosity was not only in kind but also in his love, compassion and empathy with those who were underdogs and those who were rejected by others. He never lost faith in people; even those whom others had given up on.
It was through Barnabas’ generosity and selflessness that Paul was invited to join him in his mission. Paul was a great preacher and more eloquent than Barnabas. But he did not feel threatened by Paul, unlike many leaders who feel threatened when their subordinates perform better than themselves. In their fear and envy, they would try to stifle the initiative and growth of their subordinates. But not so in the case of Barnabas. He allowed Paul to flower in the ministry with him. He did not try to put Paul down but instead stepped aside so that Paul could come into prominence and eventually overtook over him. He humbly stepped aside when he found someone who could do a better job than him. St Luke subtly recognized this in the way he recorded about their ministry – initially, it was always Barnabas and Paul, (cf Act 13:42) but subsequently, Luke would refer to them as Paul and Barnabas.
Barnabas was a humble man. He was willing to go wherever he was sent. He did not wish to compete with Paul. He not only allowed Paul to be successful in his ministry but when Paul could not work with John Mark, both of them went separate ways without resentment or disparagement. We never heard about Barnabas criticizing Paul or angry with him about that incident. Since Paul knew what he was doing and he was successful in his mission, Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance, and so brought him along on another mission in Cyprus. Indeed, Barnabas was never egoistic. He did not seek power, control or fame. He was not even worried about success or what legacy he would leave behind. He was only interested in spreading the gospel and bringing people along to collaborate with him. Barnabas was a team player. He was one who led by example and by tapping the resources and hidden talents of others, and together, helped them to use them for the proclamation of the gospel.
Indeed, without Barnabas, there would not be a Paul! This is an important lesson for us to learn. We might not all be great missionaries and preachers like Paul. We might not be a Minister in the government or a CEO of a big company. We might just be ordinary teachers, collaborators and team players in an organization. It does not matter what position we hold. What is important is that we contribute our best to the team. Let God decide in the team communal discernment as who is the best person to lead us. This was what they did, “So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” So if we are called, we should respond. If not, we should just give encouragement to the team members as Barnabas did.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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