My only brother-in-law, for many years an Air Force pilot, told me of a friend of his who was flying his jet over San Antonio, Texas, when he had to radio the tower that his craft was losing power and therefore was descending rapidly. He was instructed to put the plane into an attitude that would take it unmanned beyond the city and then, having done that, to bail out.
Aware that the safety of the people below depended on his maintaining what control he possibly could, he stayed with the plane, trying in every way he could to guide it over the city and into the woods beyond. He must have been thinking of his young wife and baby as he did just that, realizing that his chances of evacuation and survival at that point would be very near zero. He died as the plane crashed in an uninhabited area.
It was certain that what this young airman did was literally to give his life so that others would be spared a horrible death. Sometimes what we do for each other in the spirit of the Gospel does come down to those black & white terms: people do give their lives for the sake of others. The person who goes to war believing it is a just cause, the person who steps in front of the weapon aimed at another, the person who flings the child to safety and is fatally wounded by the careening vehicle — these are typical of such altruistic behavior, no matter how rare they may be.
Most of the time, though, the events are not so dramatic, but they are cut from the same cloth. Ordinarily, it is in little ways that we deliberately diminish our own lives so that others, in some way, may live more fully — or, indeed, live at all. We think immediately of our mothers and fathers who gave of their time, their rest, their convenience, their material possessions only so that their children could have and enjoy what little was available. We think also of those many persons who have shared a bodily organ in order to make possible the survival of someone else.
What Jesus had in mind, you can be sure, when he formed his community of followers, was that we should live not only seeking to increase our own pleasures and leisure and property, but also sacrificing appropriately for the sake of others — our time, sleep, pleasures, money, even health. That’s what would distinguish his true disciples.
And then he said so emphatically that that sort of lifestyle, essentially giving and generous, would always be rewarded by the God he knew as Father, who, he said, sees everything.
If we are willing to take the chance of giving away anything, any part of us, material or spiritual, in his name when it is clear that someone else’s need for it is far greater than our own, we’ve got to be convinced that that is the right, the best, and the most life-giving thing to do.