Bottom line: Human life has value for the same reason that gold has value - its worth is determined by the price someone is willing to pay for it.
This Sunday I want to speak about a very basic issue: the value of human life. How we value human life determines how we treat ourselves and others: the poor, the immigrant, the handicapped, the unborn, the infirm and the dying - not to mention the person who makes my life difficult or who I just cannot forgive. The question is fundamental: Where does the value of human life come from? Why does human life have worth at all? Today's Gospel gives us the answer. To put it in a nutshell: Human life has value for the same reason that gold has value.
To illustrate what I mean by the value of gold, I offer a story. In his book on the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert tells about a concentration camp prisoner. Before his arrest, the man was a successful jeweler in Holland. The Nazis robbed him of his possessions, but he managed to smuggle a small amount of gold into prison. He hoped to survive the encampment and use the gold to begin his life over again. But, with the lack of food, he grew thinner and hungrier. In desperation he took the gold and showed it to a guard. He asked the guard what he would give for it. The next day the guard returned, reached into his pocket and pulled out two potatoes. They were small, shriveled and had begun to rot. The prisoner looked at them. He hesitated for a moment, then handed the gold to guard and quickly ate the uncooked potatoes.
Martin Gilbert comments that the exchange represented a precise scale of worth. In that concentration camp, a few scraps of food were more valuable than gold. Right now that same gold would be worth a couple thousand dollars. With it you could buy one of those new cars from India. What we see here is that gold has value because of the price someone is willing to pay for it.
Something similar applies to the value of human life. This Sunday we hear the price someone is willing to pay for a human life - for yours and for mine. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming, he said, "Behold, the Lamb of God."
In the Old Testament, each year, they used to select a lamb - that is, a young male sheep. He was a year old, the time when his meat and wool fetched their highest price. Each family, who could afford it, would offer a young sheep for the sacrifice. The priest placed the lamb on the altar and opened its throat so blood would flow out. The blood of the lamb brought forgiveness - it restored people to God.
When St. John saw Jesus, he said: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Like a young sheep placed on an altar, Jesus would give his blood - his life - for us. That is the greatest price, because Jesus is perfect man and true God.
If you were to ask where our value comes from, you would have to say: It is not because we are so intelligent. Nor because we are so charming, or so good, or so beautiful or so strong. We may have some of those qualities, but they do not last for very long. Ultimately our worth does not come from our brilliance or virtue or beauty or strength.* We are valuable because someone is willing to pay a great price for us.
It is important for us to say that today. We live in a society confused about the value of human life. For example, Washington state has a former governor who considers his life so worthless that he wishes to end it. But he does not want to do it by jumping off a bridge or taking an overdose. He wants to implicate the rest of us and the medical profession in his suicide - and, then, call it "death with dignity." As Christians we cannot do that. We know that his life has incalculable value. Someone is willing to pay an enormous price for it. The Lamb of God has paid the price.
We of course want to do what we can to ease the other person's discomfort. But we do not believe that suffering in itself is absurd. We can join our suffering to the Lamb of God. In his encyclical Spes Salvi - in hope we are saved - Pope Benedict talks about the importance of offering our daily trials in union with Christ. What a person endures - for the sake of Christ - can have great value. This applies particularly to the suffering involved in one's final illness. This message is hard to proclaim - and even harder to live: That each human life has incalculable worth - even in the face of great suffering. As Christians we know we have been purchased at a high price.
This basic message ties in with an observance which commences this weekend: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Once someone asked C.S. Lewis if he thought it was a good time to pray for Christian unity. He responded that it is always a good time to pray for Christian unity. Still, in light of the assault on basic values - including human life itself - now more than ever we need to pray for a united Christian witness. For sure, there are natural reasons for valuing human life - but ultimately human life has value for the same reason that gold has value. This Sunday, St. John the Baptist tells us the price - and who is willing to pay it: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
*Virtue (honesty, fairness, integrity, etc.) does give a person worth, but ultimately it gives worth by opening one to grace. No one can be saved by their own virtue.
From Archives (Second Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Ten Ways to Affirm Value of Human Life, John XXIII Mass for Kathy McEntee, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - 100th Anniversary)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Seattle Pilgrimage to Rome, June 7-13, 2010 Year of the Priest
Parish Picture Album
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