Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The gift of vulnerability

October 20, 2021

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus often challenges people to live with authenticity, free from any pretense or attempts to gloss over human weakness by chasing after power, positions and possessions. In a recent Gospel passage, we heard the story of the sons of Zebedee, John and James, trying to maneuver Jesus into granting them special status in the kingdom. They wanted a distinction above the other apostles, who react with indignation.

Jesus doesn’t criticize their ambition; he tells them it’s OK to want to be great. But if they really want to be great, they have to be great human beings. That means putting themselves at the disposal of others, allowing themselves to become vulnerable for others. He is not telling them to pretend to be servants, as if they could exchange one pretense for another.

No, they are actually to be servants, for it is only in making themselves vulnerable for others can they come into contact with their true humanity as vulnerable creatures. That is the only way to leave behind the temptation to be something they are not.

Of course, we don’t like being vulnerable. We try to numb it with the pretenses of wealth, fame and addictions that create the illusion of being something other than who we are. We have mastered the ability to find ever new ways, even if they are destructive, to numb our anxiety about being vulnerable, mortal creatures.

But here is the truth about our lives: We are born needy and we die helpless. We live daily with the risk of being mortal, something this pandemic has made so very clear to us.

Jesus’ call to be servants is an invitation to embrace our vulnerability by serving one another. This is what brings a real sense of satisfaction in life. It’s the vulnerability that spouses offer to one another, that allows us to forgive someone who has hurt us, that frees us to be generous with our limited resources and that moves us to invest in the lives of children, even though we have no idea how they will turn out. 

All these experiences bring a satisfaction that no status, fortune or fame can offer. These moments free us from the anxiety of being vulnerable because we see that taking such risks makes us authentic human beings. It transforms our anxiety over being vulnerable into joy.

But there is more that Jesus tells us about the value of being vulnerable. By becoming a servant himself, he reveals that God, in whose image we are made, is a God who is vulnerable. From the dawn of creation God has revealed this to us. With no concern for how all of that will turn out, God takes the risk in creating the world and us. He makes us in his own image, and we stumble right out of the gate. It doesn’t matter.

God then chooses a people, promising to be faithful to them only to be repeatedly disappointed by their infidelity. And yet God always brings them back and begins again. And then God makes himself most vulnerable, as any parent would understand, by subjecting his only son to the decisions of sinful people who have a history of misusing the gift of freedom he has given them. 

If we want to be great, great like God in whose image we are made, then we must be vulnerable for others as God is.

In one of the Gospels, James and John approach Jesus for this preferential treatment after being urged on by their mother. Maybe Mrs. Zebedee doesn’t  realize it, but she really is telling her sons that they are not good enough the way they are. They must have a title, a position, a status to measure up.

We should never send that message to our children, that they have to be someone else in order to have our love. Doing so only makes them afraid when they experience the human failure that comes with life. Let’s teach them not to be afraid of being vulnerable by showing them that being vulnerable for others can be lifegiving. Doing so might help us usher in the next generation of people who live authentic lives, free of escapism and numbing addictions. Let’s call them to be truly great. They deserve no less.