In Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem, “If,” he lays down a series of conditions for manhood. Among them he includes this challenge: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
His insight is noteworthy. All too many of us spend way too much of our lives focused on how to achieve triumph and avoid disaster. Kipling unveils both as “imposters” -- not worthy of our attention, much less our lifelong devotion.
It’s a hard lesson to learn.
How else can you explain why so few of us learn it? Or why do even those who do learn it also seem to forget it all too often?
Fortunately, Jesus was an exception.
That’s clear in the sudden, incredible contrast we find in the two Gospel readings we will hear at Mass this Sunday, officially known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.
The first reading comes at the beginning of Mass in the procession with palms. Here we observe Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem.
As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen. They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” (Lk 19:36-38)
The acclaim given him is riveting. And just as fleeting.
Only minutes later in the Mass we will return to Luke’s Gospel, where four chapters further into it we encounter the crowd responding to Pontius Pilate’s scrutiny with shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Lk 23:21)
Before that chapter ends, we are told: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit;’ and when he had said this he breathed his last.” (Lk 23:46)
It’s hard to imagine how someone could sink so quickly from the triumph of a king to the bleeding and broken disaster of a common criminal, mocked by crowds and the very soldiers who nailed him to a cross. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Jesus.
Incredibly, Jesus takes the sudden, cruel shift of public sentiment in stride. He suffers, yes. But his suffering is physical. Focused on doing the will of his father unto death, he seems to be spared the emotional torture of being rejected – even when the rejection comes from his own apostles.
That’s apparent in two instances. First, while still on the cross he asks God to forgive those who have crucified and abandoned him. Then, after his resurrection, he appears to his apostles and when he would have been justified shouting “you’re fired,” instead he says to them, “Peace be with you.” (Lk 24:36)
If we want to lead like Jesus, we have to embrace the perspective of Kipling. We have to recognize that human triumph and disaster are nothing more than imposters – certainly not worthy of either our aspirations or our fears.
And if we need a model for how to live with a deeper, more deserving focus, we need look no further than Jesus in the Gospel readings this weekend.