Tuesday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’

Those words are the epitome of humility.  They recognize that our life and our calling are at the service of our God, who gives us everything we have and everything we are.  And so when we do something wonderful, it’s because God has given us the ability to be wonderful.  When we say the right things to someone who needs to hear wisdom or compassion or even rebuke or challenge, it’s because those words come from God.  When we are in the right place at the right time to be able to be present to someone who needs a friend or a parent or a teacher or a coach, it’s because God is asking us to be his presence to that person.  We are just doing what we are obliged to do.

But it’s not like there isn’t reward for being the unprofitable servant.  If we are servants without agenda, serving in humility and gratitude, we have hope of the promise of eternity.  The wisdom writer in our first reading says:

But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
a
nd no torment shall touch them.

And being servants in God’s hands is the best place we can be – no torment can reach us there.  But if we refuse to serve, or if we insist on having all the profit credited to us, then we are outside the hand of God, and God forbid what awaits us there.  Serving our God in humility is indeed the task of all our lives; it is what gets us to the reward of being united with God for eternity.

When we embrace the reality of service with humility, we can sing with the Psalmist today and every day, “I will bless the Lord at all times!”

Monday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A story is told about the third-century martyr Saint Lawrence that, after the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence, who was the keeper of the material goods of the Church, turn over to him all of the Church’s treasures.  In response, Saint Lawrence brought out the poor, the blind and the lame, to whom he had distributed alms, saying, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”  That act cost Lawrence his life, but it also testified to the real truth of where our treasure is found.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord instructs those dining at the home of one of the leading Pharisees to do much the same.  Rather than inviting those who would give you a boost in social status or cause you to have the opportunity for repayment, instead they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” expecting blessing because of their inability to repay the favor.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, the Church gives us this reading to help us to reflect on our discipleship over the last year.  What has been our response to the Gospel?  Have we sought our own honor and glory, or have we instead turned to have compassion on others?  Have we treated people as stepping stones to something better, or have we humbled ourselves?

Friends, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot receive the blessing God wants to give us if we aren’t humble enough to let go of social status and wealth and the high estimation of others.  We cannot receive blessing when we are grasping for things that look better.   So if toward the end of this year, we have not grown in blessing, maybe it’s time we took stock of what we need to get rid of.  Empty hands can receive blessing.

The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

We know about, or at least have heard about the deadly sins.  These are those sins that drag us down into further sin, and really work to cut us off from the relationship with Christ that we hold dear.  So we remember that these sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.  But for each of these deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue.  Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride.  Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Jesus tells us quite clearly today: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  But not many of us really seek to be humbled, do we?  When we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.”  As you think about humble people do you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious? Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.”

But that’s not how Jesus sees it.  He doesn’t see humble people as wimpy or weak-minded.  He sees them as leaders: “The greatest among you,” he tells us, “must be your servant.”  So do you want to be a leader?  Do you want people to look up to you?  Do you want to be a role model for your children?  Well, if you do, you need to be a servant of others.

When I think about humility, I often think about a man named Mike, who was a member of my home parish.  Mike was one of my favorite people in the world.  He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, over forty years ago now.  Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now.  But Mike never took advantage of anybody; Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.”  He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him.  He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen.  When Mike retired, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.

Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer.  The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs.  This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve.  Several years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake.  It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long.  His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass.  Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it.  Mike was the kind of servant leader that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel.

The attitude of humility is counter-cultural.  We want the places of honor at banquets and wherever we go; that’s just human nature.  We may not wear phylacteries or tassels when we come in to worship, but we are pleased when someone notices how wonderful is something that we have done.  And Jesus would have nothing of all this.

I don’t really think that Jesus was saying there shouldn’t be people we call “father” or “teacher” or “master.”  Sometimes non-Catholics will cite this passage to dismiss the value of the Priesthood.  But they are taking one verse out of context and miss the point: Jesus knew well that the world needs leaders.  But the message here is that those leaders must be the servants of all.  They shouldn’t be in the position to have the titles of honor.  Rather the title should recognize the servant leadership that is the heart of who they are.  It’s something I pray to get better at every day; maybe you do too.  And so we need to reflect on how willing we have been to be servants.  Have we reached out to the poor in some way?  Have we given adequately of our time, talent and treasure for the mission of the Church?  Do we carry out our roles in our family, job, or community with love and compassion and humility?

We can see how Jesus modeled leadership in his own life.  Indeed, he is not asking us to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was clearly foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

At this Mass, we have been invited to a very important banquet, and we ourselves are completely unworthy of being here.  And I include myself in that statement, brothers and sisters.  Yet, through grace, through the love of our God, we have been given an exalted place at the banquet table.  Realizing how great the gift is and how unworthy of it we are is a very humbling experience.  In that humility, we are called to go out and feed those who need to know how much God loves them.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a kind of blueprint for the life of the disciple.  We see that those who surrounded Jesus as his core group were but a few selected people.  We have the Twelve, of course, but also some women.  Common to all of them is that nowadays we would probably not see any of them as qualified for the job of being in the Savior’s inner circle.  The Twelve themselves were a ragtag bunch, tradesmen, fishermen, tax collectors – none of them were even particularly distinguished in their chosen careers.

The women mentioned were similarly unqualified.  The Gospel says that they had all been cured either of evil spirits or infirmities.  But they also provided for the ministry out of their means.  So it’s a humble group that surrounds Jesus, and clearly, that was fine with him.  He came, after all, to save those who needed saving, not those who had no use for a Savior.

Paul tells Timothy that those who would be disciples must “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  They must “compete well for the faith” and thus “lay hold of eternal life.”  Jesus chooses anyone he wants; not merely those who are outstanding in qualifications.  Blessed indeed “are those who are poor in Spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This whole Gospel story can be a little bit jarring, I think. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard about this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to say the least.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. Just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings them.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You’ll often hear me say that the Liturgy of the Word for these summer Ordinary Time Sundays is designed to offer us a kind of toolbox for living our Christian discipleship.  And that’s important because discipleship isn’t an easy thing to live, and it would be far easier to just throw it aside and never give it a second thought, which is what so many people do.  But it can’t be that way for us; we know the Lord and have experienced his love, and so the only thing we can do in the face of that love and mercy is live the life he has called us to live.  The only option for us is being disciples.  And it’s not insurmountable for us, because we have the roadmap, the instructions if you will, for living that life.  We call them the Gospels.

So these Gospel readings during the summer and fall give us the tools we need to live the Christian life.  If that’s so, and I would obviously say it is, then the tool we are being offered today is the tool of the virtue called humility.  You may be thinking, “Well, no thanks, actually.  I may just leave that particular tool in the toolbox.”  Because being a person of humility in our culture can be seen as something of a character flaw.  For decades, maybe even longer, our society has encouraged us to toot our own horn, to look out for number one.  “Believe in yourself” has been the mantra of Oprah and Doctor Phil and all those other self-appointed gurus.  But we have to remember that we have not been breathed into existence in the image of Oprah or Doctor Phil.  We have been created in the image and likeness of God, and so we need to emulate our God as closely as we can.

So what does our God look like?  Well, Zechariah gives us a pretty clear portrait today: “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”  So our Savior was prophesied to be meek and just, and far from coming into the city riding on a mighty horse of a king, he comes in on a donkey, the beast of burden employed by the poor.  And that’s just how Jesus was, wasn’t he?  He could have insisted on his glory as our God, could have chosen not to take on our feeble and flawed flesh.  But he didn’t.  He humbled himself, becoming like ourselves in all things but sin.

So today, Jesus invites us to that same kind of humility.  He invites us to take his yoke upon our shoulders.  A yoke back then was an implement that kept the oxen together so they could work the fields.  So a yoke implies a few things.  First, it’s going to be work.  That’s what yokes are for.  So when Jesus says he’s going to give us rest, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be some work involved.  Disciples have work to do in this world, living the Gospel, witnessing to God’s love, and reaching out to a world that needs hope and mercy and grace.

Second, a yoke meant that more than one animal was working; they were working together.  So as we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, we are yoked to him and we are yoked to other disciples.  Jesus calls us to work for the kingdom, but never expects us to work for it alone.  That’s why his burden is easy and light: it’s still a burden, but we never ever bear it alone, Christ is always with us, and we always live our discipleship in community with other believers.

This model of working for the kingdom leads us right back to humility.  If we are yoked to the community and to our Savior, that means that we can’t take sole credit for the mighty things we are able to do.  Yes, we do great things, but we do them because he has transformed us and has taken the yoke with us; we do them with the help of other disciples to whom we are yoked for the particular purpose of being God’s presence in the world.  We are no longer men and women in the flesh, as Saint Paul says today, we are people of the Spirit, with the Spirit of Christ in us, and so in Christ we cast aside those deeds of darkness and, taking his yoke, we accomplish the work Jesus has given us.  Saint Augustine once said, “Humility must accompany all our actions, must be with us everywhere; for as soon as we glory in our good works they are of no further value to our advancement in virtue.”

And that is our goal as disciples: to advance in virtue.  Some days, that’s very hard work.  But we never have to go it alone, if we are truly humble people working in the image of our God.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We have a pretty late Lent this year.  Ash Wednesday is not until March 1st.  What is really nice about that is that it gives us a little more ordinary time in the winter, which we often don’t get.  Sometimes we rush from Christmas to Ash Wednesday and barely get to breathe.  So in this little Ordinary Time break, we get some nice things in the Scriptures, specifically the study of what the Christian life should be.  I think today’s Scriptures give us a look at the virtue of humility.

Humility is the virtue that reminds us that God is God and we are not.  That might seem pretty obvious, but I think if we’re honest, we’d all have to admit that we have trouble with humility from time to time.  The deadly sin that is in opposition to humility is pride, and pride is perhaps the most common sin, and really the most serious sin.  We might think of all kinds of other sins that seem worse, but pride completely destroys our relationship with God because it convinces us that we don’t need God.  That was the sin of the Israelites building the golden calf in the desert, it was the sin of the Pharisees arguing with Jesus, it was even the sin of Lucifer in the first place, and it is the sin of all of us, at some level, at some times in our lives.

Pride is pretty easy to recognize when it’s blatant: it is the person boasting of their abilities or their possessions or their accomplishments or status, claiming all the glory for themselves, putting others down in the process, and never even mentioning God.  So we might look at that and say, well, Father Pat, I’m not prideful.  But hold on just a second.  That’s not the only face of pride.  Another face of pride realizes that we are in a sorry state, but doesn’t want to bother God with our problems so we try to figure them out ourselves.  It never works, and so we continue to feel miserable, but we also offend God in the process.  A similar face of pride looks to accomplish something important, maybe even something holy.  But we go about it without immersing it in prayer and forge ahead with our own plans.  Again, we often fail at those times, and we certainly offend God.

The only antidote to pride is the virtue of humility.  It is the prayer that admits that God is God and we are not.  It is the way of living that accepts the difficulties and challenges of life as an opportunity to let God work in us.  It is the state of being that admits that everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God, and spurs us to profound and reverential gratitude for the outpouring of grace that gets us through every day and brings us to deeper friendship with God.

So today we hear the very familiar Beatitudes.  I know that when I was learning about the Beatitudes as a child, they were held up as some kind of Christian answer to the Ten Commandments.  I don’t think that’s particularly valid.  One might say, however, that the Ten Commandments are a basic rule of life and the Beatitudes take us still deeper.

I also remember thinking, when I was learning about the Beatitudes, that these seemed like kind of a weak way to live life. I mean, who can live up to all these things anyway?  And who would want to?  Do you know anyone who would actively seek to be poor, meek or mourning?  And who wants to be a peacemaker?  Those people have more than their share of grief.

So I think when we hear the Beatitudes today, we need to hear them a little differently.  We need to hear them as consolation and encouragement on the journey.  Because at some point or another, we will all be called upon to be poor, meek and mourning.  That’s just life.  And the disciple has to be a peacemaker and seek righteousness.  We will have grief in this lifetime – Jesus tells us that in another place.  So what Jesus is saying here, is that those of us undergoing these sorts of trials and still seeking to be righteous people through our sufferings are blessed.  And the Greek word that we translate as “blessed” here is makarios, a word that could also be translated as “happy.”  Happy are those who suffer for the Kingdom.

So does anyone really believe that?  I mean, it’s quite a leap of faith to engage our sufferings and still be sane, let alone happy.  The ability to see these Beatitudes as true blessings seems like too much to ask.  And yet, that’s what we disciples are being asked to do.

I think a good part of the reason why this kind of thinking is hard for us, is that it’s completely countercultural.  Our society wants us to be happy, pain-free and without a concern in the world.  That’s the message we get from commercials that sell us the latest in drugs to combat everything from indigestion to arthritis pain – complete with a horrifying list of side-effects.  That’s the message we get from the self-help books out there and the late-night infomercials promising that we can get rich quick, rid our homes of every kind of stain or vermin, or lose all the weight you want in just minutes a day.  That’s the message we get from Oprah and Dr. Phil and their ilk, who encourage us never to be second to anyone and to do everything possible to put ourselves first.  If this is the kind of message we get every time we turn on a television, or surf the internet, who on earth would want to be poor in spirit?  Who would want to be meek?  Who would even think to hunger and thirst for righteousness?

Now this is an important point: Pride is just the way we live, culturally speaking.  We are always right, and if we’re not, we certainly have a right to be wrong.  We can accomplish anything we set out to do, and if we fail, it was someone else’s fault.  We don’t need anyone’s help to live our lives, but when we’re in need, it’s because everyone has abandoned us.  We are culturally conditioned to be deeply prideful people, and it is absolutely ruining our spiritual lives.

Jesus is the One who had the most right of anyone to be prideful.  He is God, for heaven’s sake – I mean, he really could do anything he wanted without anyone’s help.  But he chose to abandon that way of thinking so that we could learn how to live more perfect lives.  He abandoned his pride and in humility took on the worst kind of death and the deepest of humiliation.

So what if we started to think the way Jesus does?  What would happen if we suddenly decided it wasn’t all about us?  What would happen if we decided that the utmost priority in life was not merely taking care of ourselves, but instead taking care of others, trusting that in that way, everyone – including ourselves – would be taken care of?  What would happen if we were not completely consumed with ourselves and so did not miss the opportunity to come to know others and grow closer to our Lord?  That would indeed be a day of great rejoicing and gladness, I can assure you that.

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself.  We all need to do that to some extent, and maybe sometimes we don’t do that as well as we should – I’ll even speak for myself on that one.  But when we consume ourselves with ourselves, nothing good can come from it.  Maybe this is a kind of balance that we could spend these weeks leading up to Lent striving to achieve.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word calls us to a kind of humility that remembers that God is God and we are not.  It is the only real antidote to the destructive, deadly sin of pride that consumes our society and us on a daily basis.  This isn’t some kind of false humility that says we are good for nothing, because God never made anything that was good for nothing.  Instead, it is a humility that reminds us that what is best in us is what God has given us.  As St. Paul says today, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”  If we would remember that everything that we have and everything we are is a gift to us, if we would remember that it is up to us to care for one another, if we would remember that being consumed with ourselves only makes us feel worse than ever, if we would but humble ourselves and let God give us everything that we really need, we would never be in want.  Blessed, happy are we; rejoice and be glad!