Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
July 05, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Zechariah 9:9-10 | Psalm 145:1-2;8-10;14-15
Romans 8:9-11;13 | Matthew 11:25-35
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Yesterday, the United States celebrated the Fourth of July, commonly called “Independence Day.” Many people take pride in being independent. For many in this country, running one’s own life and not being dependent on others is a virtue to which everyone should aspire. The notion of each person paying for each one’s own survival and not living off others is deeply ingrained in the culture of the United States. Some people go so far as to demonize those who live off others as “freeloaders” when referring to those who receive welfare payments or other public benefits for which they did not pay.
Why is independence so appealing? The more independent you are, the more freedom you have to live the way you want to live. Indeed, the United States is often called, “The land of the free and the home of the brave.” If you are financially independent, meaning you don’t have to work for a living, you can pretty much do what you want to do when and how you want to do it without the approval of other people. If you are emotionally independent, you don’t need other people not of your choosing to be happy. And if you are spiritually independent, you are free to fashion your relationship with God as you see fit, or be without any such relationship at all. The more independent you are, the freer you are. Many people in the United States hold near and dear the idea that you should be proud of your freedom and independence. In the words of one website we read the words, “We celebrate our freedom with pride on Independence Day.”
But is pride in our independence what God really wants from us? Maybe God wants something altogether different?
The overarching theme of this week’s readings is humility. Humility is a Christian virtue that is heavily embedded in the Church. You might remember that on the Feast of Corpus Christi three weeks ago, we sang a hymn that began, “Humbly I Adore Thee.” And before Communion at Mass, we pray, “Lord I am not worthy…”
Humility is the opposite of pride. Yes, Jesus came to us as a king, but not in the manner of a person we associate with kingship. As prophesized by the prophet Zechariah in today’s first reading, Jesus came to us in great humility, riding not in a chariot, but on a donkey as recounted in all four gospels in the story of Palm Sunday. Jesus, the human manifestation of the divine, is, in the words of today’s Gospel, “meek and humble of heart.”
Humility is who Jesus is. To be like Jesus is to be humble. As you will recall, Jesus was conceived out of wedlock in a fourteen-year-old girl, was born in the manger of a stable among animals, grew up in a working-class family where the father did the manual labor of carpentry, had no home of his own in his adult life, and died on a cross, an instrument of shame in the Roman society into which he was born.
Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians describes Jesus thusly:
“…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
These words of Saint Paul tell us something about God. Jesus is the revelation to humanity who God is. Jesus and God the Father share either’s characteristics. Yet Jesus, who was simultaneously human and divine, did not boast with pride about his divine nature.
Yes, the earthly Jesus was as human as all of humanity is, but most people in the Western World, particularly in the United States, do not share the humility of Jesus set out by Saint Paul. People in the United States are more prideful than humble in countless ways. They take pride in their country, their family, their religion, and many other ways of identifying themselves. Many look down on others who are not like themselves. I catch myself doing it, too. I’ve been caught looking down on people who prefer rock music and low church liturgy, as well as those who espouse conservative social and political values.
Getting off your high horse is difficult, and we are reluctant to do it. Why? Because we are proud of who and what we are. We live in a culture that promotes self-esteem and pride in oneself. That kind of thinking is promoted by pop psychologists as the key to a successful life. But carried to extremes, self-esteem tramples on the rights of others and distances us from others. There is nothing wrong with being certain of your own value, meaning you are happy that you are who you are, provided your certainty about yourself is realistic.
Humility and realism go together. The true disciple of Jesus is a humble disciple. Realism and effective discipleship go together. One of the most difficult life lessons for me has been realizing that I am not always right and that I make mistakes. I am a priest, but I am imperfect like any other human person. I do stupid things and bad things just like all of you do. Humility brings empathy, an important trait for effective discipleship. Being a disciple of Jesus requires interacting with others in an empathetic way. Spiritual leadership that lacks empathy falls on deaf ears. Thus, I have found that realistically and readily admitting my own imperfections enables me to better empathize with and understand other people. It’s made me a more effective representative of Jesus.
Humility is not self-abasement but objective honesty with yourself. It is my recognizing that other people have value in God’s sight just as I do and that my way of looking at people and situations is not often how others do so. I have learned that sometimes I have to swallow my pride to get things done, to enable life to go on. Out of Christian love motivated by a subjective pastoral concern for the people of God whom I serve, I find myself sometimes apologizing for things I didn’t do or things I did that I don’t consider wrong. It takes humility to do that because I have to consider that other people view the world in a different way than I do and that I have to forget the prideful feeling of being right and leave behind my own ego to in the name of loving and serving others
Humility opens me up to other people. To understand what other people are feeling, I have to move beyond myself. I step down by discarding my pride and admit that, as much as I might be convinced that I am correct from my viewpoint, I could be incorrect from the viewpoint of other people. Progressing from pride to humility recognizes that other people matter.
Humility is the basis for incarnational theology, the basic principle of which is God humbling Himself by taking our human flesh in Jesus. That very act was for the purpose and effect to show that God empathizes with our humanness. The humility that characterized Jesus was an unmitigated manifestation of a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, good to all and compassionate toward all his works, to paraphrase today’s psalm which speaks of the Spirit of God as dwelling within us.
Humility allows the Spirit of God to dwell in you. Humility enables life in the Spirit to replace what is identified in today’s Second Reading as living according to the flesh. Now, the phrase, “according to the flesh,” has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather, the overall human limitations that distract us from God, like destructive pride, as contrasted with life in the Spirit, which means a life attuned to God. The human spirit is, in fact, that dimension of the human being that can be joined to the Spirit of God. Humility facilitates that connection, while Pride obstructs that connection.
One of the worst traits of prideful persons is to say, or act as if, “I know everything.” Humility, however, opens us to wisdom. The humble person thinks, “I don’t know everything. I have much to learn, whereas the prideful, ego-driven person thinks, “I know everything. I don’t want to learn.” Indeed, Jesus in today’s Gospel offers a prayer to his Father that tells us that God has hidden wisdom from the so-called wise and learned people but revealed it to those to whom Jesus referred as ‘little ones.” The phrase “little ones” does not refer to children, but to those who are unselfconscious and dependent on others. Consequently, they are receptive to that which is new and different. Put another way, the hidden things of God are not revealed to the worldly-wise, that is, those who are aware and confident of their own knowledge and who are, as a result, quite self-sufficient, but instead, God’s wisdom is revealed to those who are quite the opposite.
A humble person is a person open to God. In the so-called “Wisdom Tradition,” knowledge comes from reflection on experience. I am always open to learning new ideas, unlike the man who during Bible Study who told me, “I read what it says. I don’t need to learn anything more.” He got quite upset when I explained to him that God’s wisdom transcends the printed page and comes in part from the world of science and technology.
As much as today’s techies proclaim their atheism, their work is an ongoing discovery of how God made the world, not proof that God doesn’t exist. Conversely, many steeped in the tradition of the church eschew science and take pride in proclaiming how their feelings about how the world should be should replace the true facts of how the world really exists. Both the techies and the religious traditionalists lack humility because both are close-minded. Both trust in themselves, not in God. Trust in God requires humility.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a book entitled “Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride” in which he shares some important thoughts about humility that I find helpful. Here is a brief summary of what he says.
Humility requires fearing God. By fear, I don’t mean being afraid of God, but an appreciation of the awe and wonder of God.
The humble person submits to God by substituting God’s will for their own. Too often, confuse submitting to God with submitting to other people and human institutions. Rather, submitting to God means accepting the facts that are part of one’s existence outside of what one feels the way things should be. Submitting to God leads to living God’s way instead of our own way. We live in God’s way when what we do follows objective, fact-driven reality, for example, improving our lives by eating a balanced diet of a reasonable quantity of healthy food. It means obeying the laws of physics, like not placing something likely to fall and break on a precarious edge.
Humility requires patience. Sometimes we don’t always get immediate results. Often we must endure or work through situations to reach a goal. For example, two people at loggerheads with each other may be better able to reconcile after their anger and hurt dissipate over time.
Humility requires a journey into our wounded hearts to ascertain our sinful drives and misplaced priorities, often involving the uncovering of unpleasant memories and past traumas. We may have to face the notion that sometimes we may not have been one hundred percent right, particularly in our treatment of other people. A journey into our past mistakes should both educate us and help us to heal broken relationships with others who have hurt us.
Humility often requires that we accept the “what is” of our lives, meaning we ought to be content with who we are, what we are, and where we are at a certain point in time. Some things will change, other things will endure. God leaves many things unresolved. Humility requires that we discern what we can change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change. Humility leads to substituting gratitude for the positive aspects of our life rather than continually proffer a litany of complaints about that which will never change.
Humility is reverence for the truth about oneself. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates the gifts that God gave us a recognizing that our skills and abilities, such as they may be, are indeed, gifts from God. An honest appraisal of who you are heightens your need for repentance, that is, for change, and your ongoing need for God’s grace, that is, God’s love.
Humility means sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. It means recognizing that your needs and your feelings are not the only ones that count. Humility also means caring about the common good. This is a hard concept, particularly in the United States, where drug companies are allowed to set their own prices for lifesaving medications in the midst of a public health crisis, looking out for their own bottom line while ignoring the common good of public health.
Humility often is best served by silence. Too many people are more intent on expressing their views rather than listening to what others have to say and taking it seriously. The proud person interrupts frequently and quickly, thinking that what she or he has to say is more important. The humble person is a good listener and appreciates that others may be able to offer wisdom.
Humility requires that we shun ego-centricity, that sense of self-importance that drives us to be easily offended or threatened. As we become more humble, we find ourselves more secure in our identity and our thoughts and become less fearful and easily offended. Humility encourages us to focus on more substantial and less frivolous things, which gives us mental stability to resist gossip and the machinations of advertisers. Humility causes our thought life to become more measured, and our conclusions more careful, our emotions are less volatile, such that we attain more emotional serenity.
Humility inspires restraint from speaking in anger or expressing ourselves in a harsh way. The humble person doesn’t have to “win” every debate but is content to stay in the conversation or to sow seeds and leave the harvest for later.
Finally, humility will bring us to where what we do and what we say is consistent, that is, not to be hypocrites. The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word “hypocritas” which is the noun for an actor in the sense of playing a role whether than living as who one truly is. The gift of humility allows us to be fully formed by God as the person God meant us to be. Accordingly, we have no need to posture or compete with other people.
As I have said many times, every person was created in God’s image, without exception, though we may find that hard to accept when we encounter people who think evil thoughts or do evil acts. The perspective of the prideful person, however, is something like, “I am created in God’s image, but you are not.” Such thinking does not reflect the humility required to be a disciple of Jesus because it abrogates the dignity of others. Although you may have a different set of skills and abilities or you may perform at a different level, what you are is equally valuable in God’s sight as others are who may be more skilled than you are at certain things. Each of us has pluses and minuses but to actualize the humility necessary to recognize and improve on the minuses is a tall order for many people.
When you have the inner peace that comes from humility, you will never become discouraged. Because you already know that you are a sinner, if you fall, you immediately turn back to God without self-pity or self-hatred. Nor will you be disturbed by the sins of others. Humility frees us from the anxiety of ambition and comparing ourselves to others.
Humility can free you from an endless cycle of resentment. Like St. Norbert, if someone spits in your face, you will not hate that person. Instead, like St. Norbert, you will choose to think on your own sins and forgive that person.
What does humility ultimately get you? It gets you peace. God’s peace. God wants to take the weight of life off your shoulders and replace it with love. God is the source of all peace. We have peace with and of God through Jesus, who comforted us in the Farewell Discourses in the Gospel of John with the words, “let not your hearts be troubled” and left us with His peace after His resurrection.
What is peace? It is more than people at war with each other beating swords into ploughshares. The common Hebrew word for peace is “Shalom” which has been defined as a feeling of fulfillment, wholeness, harmony, security, and well-being. Peace is the security that comes when all coexist in freedom and harmony with one another. When you feel at peace with yourself, you are content to be the person you are, flaws, and everything. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. However, peace cannot permeate us unless we are in a place of humility.
Jesus brings us to peace into a place where there is no need to be anything but humbly place our total trust in Jesus, who in the words of today’s Gospel, is there to give us rest when we are burdened by the labors of lives.
If nothing else, your humility will enable you to find rest in Jesus. That is possible because Jesus does not impose impossible burdens on us. Consider the theological context in which Jesus was operating. The yoke in today’s Gospel refers to the dominant intellectual force of the Jewish community, the Pharisees, who were constantly debating the law and imposing burdens on people, often impossible burdens. The burden imposed by Jesus, however, is, by contrast, a burden much lighter than the stone tablets on which laws were written. Jesus gave us but two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. If you take that seriously, you will be a truly humble and happy person at peace with yourself. AMEN.