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ANIMALS TEACH HUMILITY AND UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Feast of Saint Francis
October 01 2017 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 18:25-28 Psalm 25:4-9
Philippians 2:1-11 Matthew 21:28-31
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Humility. That’s a very, very, difficult, extremely difficult, concept for humanity generally, particularly in the United States of America. Our culture communicates a message that sounds like this. “Be a winner.” “Be better than the next person.” “Be First.” That’s called the “achievement ethic”. It supports our meritocracy, that vertically rates everyone an everything. But all of that is the exact opposite of humility, not what the life and message of Jesus teaches us.
Today’s Gospel relates an encounter between Jesus and the high priests and elders of the Jerusalem temple. They were not unlike today’s church hierarchy. We still have our share of chief priests and elders. So many clergy define their success in the church in the same way people define it in the secular world, moving up the hierarchy to positions of increased importance. I assure you, I am not one of them. I am delighted to simply be your parish priest, nothing more.
I grew up as a high-church Episcopalian in Greenwich, Connecticut. My parents sent me to Brunswick, a private school for boys. That environment communicates lofty expectations to young people. Get good grades, better than other kids. Be a leader on the sports field and in extra-curricular activities like student government and various clubs. Do all that to get yourself into a so-called “good” college. Date other high achievers who are good looking. Move up in society by build connections with people who can help you “get ahead”, which, translated, means a nice house in a so-called “good” neighborhood, driving a “nice” car, and membership in a country club. That’s what was clearly expected of me when I was a child. But wven when I left private school at my own insistence, because I wanted to be where the girls were, the public high school communicated much the same message: work hard to be better than the next person in everything you do. Survival depends on competing with other people was the idea.
But all of that, on the inside, was very stressful for me and disturbed my soul on a very deep level. So, I purposely did not go to an ivy-league college, as was expected of me. Instead, I went to colleges that featured ordinary folk as students, often the first generation in their families to go to college. And I left the East Coast pressure-cooker altogether in 1976 at the age of twenty-four and immigrated to California.
Why did the environment in which I grew up disturb me so much? Because its values were not the values of Jesus! Jesus was, has been, and will always, be more important to me than any other person, no matter how smart, no matter how wealthy, no matter how good-looking. And why is Jesus the ultimate ideal? Is it because Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human? No. Jesus is the focal point for me because of the way He is described in today’s Epistle. “Though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” “He emptied Himself”. “He took the form of a slave.” “He humbled himself”. “He became obedient to the point of death.” And for all of this, God highly exalted Him.
That description of Jesus represented exactly the opposite of the characteristics of those in the audience to whom Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel. In the timeline set out in Matthew’s gospel, the conversation in today’s pericope occurred after Jesus had just entered Jerusalem after a journey from the north lasting several months. When He arrived, he no longer engaged in petty disputations with the Pharisees and scribes of the law at the local synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus was now at the big show, taking on the chief priests and elders of the Jerusalem Temple, the ecclesiastical establishment of first-century Judaism known as the Sadducees. Today’s dialogue occurred after Jesus stormed the Temple and threw out the money changers. When asked by what authority he did this, He told the Sadducees, “I’m not going to tell you.” To the Sadducees, Jesus was a serious disrupter of their status quo. They were not ready for a Jesus who would tell them the last shall be first and the first shall be last. They were not ready for the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, about a God will put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek. Pride, not humility, was their game plan.
The two sons in today’s gospel contrast pride and humility. Look at the first son, the one who responds to his father’s request to go work in the vineyard, “I will not” but then goes anyways. This guy wants to have it both ways, to satisfy his pride. When he says, “I will not” he demonstrates pride by defiance. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve resented someone else telling us to do something we should do, and we rebel by saying “No.” That’s showing our ego, our independence, our pride. And then he goes and works in the field anyways. He’s doing that, so he’ll score points in the eyes of others, for realizing he shouldn’t have said “No”, and then doing the so-called right thing in going to work as he should have. Instinctively, the priests and elders of the Jerusalem temple, liked this guy better, and so do most of us, at first glance. He looks like a hero. The second son, however, is the opposite. He says “Yes, I’ll go,” but then doesn’t go. Our instinct is to condemn his dishonesty. We don’t like his kind of moral character, promising to do something and then not doing it. This fellow, however, is without the rebellious pride of the first son. He says he’ll go to work. And he exhibits no pride at all when he didn’t go to work. He was, therefore, not able to boast that he’s changed his ways like the first guy did. His lack of rebellious pride is why Jesus says that second guy is doing is father’s will, even though he lied to his Father. To Jesus, it was better to be dishonest than rebellious.
When Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which of the two sons did the will of their father, they did not think like God thinks. They thought in terms of common sense human values: the first guy recognized his mistake and turned around, while the second son was a despicable liar. He was a sinner. But again, God’s choices, what God thinks is good or bad, is way different from how we look at life. The kind of people we think are good are not always the kind of people God thinks are good. Why is God like that? Jesus tells us it is the sick who need a physician, not those who are healthy. In God’s eyes, the more one sins, the more opportunity there is for mercy, and mercy is what God is all about.
What Jesus is telling us today is that God looks for, and cares for, sinners, like tax collectors and prostitutes, and even people who lie. To give you some context, in first century Palestine, Jews who collected taxes for the Roman empire. They were seen as turncoats, traitors to their own countrymen who helped, rather than fought, the Roman oppressors. Prostitutes were associated with the idolatry of the polytheistic pagan worship that flew in the face of monotheism. But in the scheme of the Kingdom of Heaven, tax collecting and prostitution are very minor transgressions. The Gospel tells us that the preaching of John the Baptist convinced them to change their ways, but the chief priests and the elders did not. Their evaluation of the parable Jesus told them illustrates precisely that. They evaluated the situation in by their unchanged worldly values, not God’s values. Their thinking represented the Old Covenant, mirrored in today’s first reading. To them, the first son was the one who turned away from iniquity and did what was right and just, and should therefore be rewarded, while the second son was the one who did the opposite: he turned away from virtue and committed iniquity by lying about going to work in his father’s vineyard. But Jesus said the second son was the one who did his father’s will. Why? Because that son said, “Yes,” not “No.” God wants people who say, “Yes,” even if we don’t follow through on doing what we say we will do. The person who says “No” is a rebel. The person who says “Yes” is humble. The person who says “Yes”, even if imperfect, is open to redemption, open to change, at God’s behest and direction, while the person who says “No” is not, even if that person later does an about-face, because pride is motivating the “about face.” To put this all in very blunt terms, God doesn’t like big egos, people who boast, gloat, and brag about turning from sin. Those kinds of feelings are what makes someone seek and acquires domination over other people and commits acts of oppression and exploitation to feed the beast that lives inside them. That beast is pride.
And that brings us to animals. In the tradition of the church, we are taught to follow the examples of the saints, those who have lived holy lives, in many cases, dying for their faith. But the markers of God’s kingdom for guidance in our lives are not found exclusively in human persons. The way animals are, and the way they live, have a message for us, too. This week on Wednesday, October fourth, is the Feast of St. Francis. He has an interesting life story. He was born into a wealthy family, but gave away most of his money and deliberately impoverished himself to empathize with the poor. He was never a bishop. He was never a priest. He was an ordained deacon. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word, “diakonos”, which means, “servant.” The Diaconate fit Francis perfectly. He was, before anything else, a humble servant of God.
Francis is widely known for his relationship to animals. He urged as to care for them. He preached to birds. He tamed wolves. Animals were his brothers and sisters. The many stories about Francis and animals exhibit a common theme. The interactions between Francis and the animals all demonstrate that animals have no ego, no pride as we know it. Animals don’t exploit, enslave, or oppress other animals. That is unique to humans. What Christians call grace is present in our relations with animals, just as it is with other humans. Grace is the inclusive and expansive power of God’s love to create and sustain relationships of mutuality and reciprocity.
Sheep set important examples for us. Sheep are social flock animals. Sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock. Sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Relationships in flocks tend to be closest among related sheep: a ewe, that is a female sheep, and her direct descendants, often move as a unit within large flocks. Sheep are a lot like us. They like being with other sheep, and especially with their blood-related family members. We find sheep and shepherd imagery throughout the Bible in both Old and New Testaments. The tradition of the church speaks of pastors as shepherds of their flocks. But humans differ from sheep in a significant way: sheep are humble. They don’t know anything about pride. They are content just to be the sheep that God made them. They don’t, and in fact can’t, try to be a better sheep so other sheep, or their shepherd, or God, will love them more. We humans are not always like that.
Another animal that sets a good example for people by way of humility is a dog. Like sheep, and like us, they are social animals. Dogs seek and provide companionship and affection. Dogs give and want love. Dogs say yes to you. Dogs want to please you. Dogs desire, above all, to be with you. And as with sheep, dogs have no pride, no ego. Dogs are humble. The way dogs relate to us sets a good example of how we should relate to God. The very word “dog” has “god” in it: just spell it backwards. So let’s turn things around. Just as we feed and care for our dogs, God feeds and cares for us. God provides us companionship and affection. God gives and wants love. We were made to please God. We were made to say yes to God. For all of that to happen, we need to be relate to God like dogs relate to us. Like dogs, we need to be without ego and pride. We don’t do God’s will when we act like the first son in today’s Gospel, defiantly saying “No” to God and then try to score points by turning our lives around. We do God’s will when we say “Yes”, even if we don’t follow through. Why? God expects us to be imperfect, and the more imperfect we are, the more God loves us.
The things un-humble people chase with so much passion, social status, monetary success, and the symbols thereof, lead to pursuing power over others for the purpose of oppressing, subjugating, and exploiting the world around us. It is also very stressful. Look at how many hard-driving, success-oriented, power-seeking people suffer heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and other health problems. Those things are God’s messages to us that those things are no good. But because all that striving for success leads to nefarious purposes and outcomes, our material success in this life and our status in relation to other people, are not important to God.
What God values is love, unconditional love, like the love we get from dogs. Got created dogs, and I am sure other animal companions as well, to show us what God’s love for us looks like: unconditional. We can only experience that unconditional love to and from God, and to and from other people, when we empty ourselves, humble ourselves, and say “Yes” to God. Don’t try to exalt yourself through your own efforts. Save yourself all that stress. Instead, be humble, and God will exalt you. AMEN.