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.

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!

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You’ve heard of the deadly sins. They are those sins that can really get at us time and time again in our lives and turn us away from God. They are things like lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath and envy. But for each of those 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 to be the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride was the sin that caused the angel Lucifer to fall from grace. Pride was the sin that caused our first parents to reach for the forbidden fruit that was beyond them, all in an attempt to know everything God does. A good examination of conscience would probably convince all of us that we suffer from pride from time to time, and sometimes even pervasively, in our own lives. It’s what causes us to compare ourselves to others, to try to solve all our problems in ways that don’t include God, to be angry when everything does not go the way we would have it. Pride, as the saying goes, and as Lucifer found out, doth indeed go before the fall, and when that happens in a person’s life, if it doesn’t break them in a way that convinces them of their need for God, will very often send them into a tailspin of despair. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Humility, then, can be the answer to that particularly pernicious sin. But when we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.” When 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.” (Not that offering up our sufferings is a bad thing, mind you.)

But Jesus described himself as “humble of heart,” and I dare say we wouldn’t think of him as such a pushover. He of all people, took every occasion to buck the system and chastise the rich and powerful. He never just let things go or avoided confrontation. But he was indeed humble, humbling himself to become one of us when he could easily have clung to his glory as God. He was strong enough to call us all, in the strongest of terms, to examine our lives and reform our attitudes, but humble enough to die for our sins.

And so it is this humble Jesus who speaks up and challenges his hearers to adopt lives of humility in today’s gospel reading. One wonders why the “leading Pharisee” even invited Jesus to the banquet. If we’ve been paying attention to the story so far, we know that the Pharisee had ulterior motives; he was certainly looking to catch Jesus in an embarrassing situation. But Jesus isn’t playing along with all that. In fact, one can certainly taste the disgust he has for what he sees going on at the banquet.

In our day, banquets are usually put together with thoughtfulness and with a mind toward making one’s guests feel comfortable. If you’ve been involved in a wedding, you know that the hosts try to seat people with those of like mind, with people who might have common experiences. It’s enough to drive a host to distraction, sometimes, because it is such hard work. But in Jesus’ day, the customs were much more rigid. People were seated in terms of their importance, and at this banquet, Jesus watched people try to assert how important they were by the places they took at table. This was all an exercise in pride, and it seems that Jesus was repulsed by it. So he tells them the parable that exhorts them to humble themselves and take the lowest place instead: far better to be asked to come to a more important place than to be sent down to a lower place and face embarrassment.

But there was another aspect of pride taking place here as well. The “leading Pharisee” had obviously invited people who were important enough to repay the favor some day – with one obvious exception – Jesus was decidedly not in a position to do so, at least not in this life. So he tells his host a parable also, exhorting him to humble himself and invite not those who are in a position to repay his generosity, but instead he should invite “he poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” – and know that because they cannot repay him, he would be repaid at the banquet of the righteous in heaven.

We don’t know how the guests or the host responded to Jesus’ exhortation to practice humility. We do, however, know that Jesus modeled it in his own life. Indeed, he was not asking them to do something he was unwilling to do himself. When he said, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was in a way 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.

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

Monday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time: Reining In Our Pride

Today’s readings

Pride is, perhaps, the most insidious of the sins with which we have to deal. And I say “we” because yes, we all have to deal with it at some level at some point in our lives. Pride keeps us from seeing that we’re headed down the wrong path. Pride also keeps us from asking for help, or even from accepting help, when we’re in trouble. Pride, as the saying goes, goes before the fall, and it can land us in some serious difficulty if we don’t work hard to eradicate it from our lives.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus clearly wanted to make sure his disciples were not bogged down with pride. Perhaps he was trying to keep them from following the behavior of the Pharisees, or maybe he even saw traces of pride at work in them as a group. Whatever the case, he warns them clearly that pride has no place in the life of the disciple.

Now, to be clear, he is not telling them that they can never pass judgment on anyone. Judging is a part of law and order, without which no society can survive. Also, he knows full well that rightly-disposed believers can and should stop others from heading down an erroneous or dangerous path. What he is saying, though, is that the rod we use to measure the other is the same measure that will be used on us, so it would be well to make sure that our motives are pure in all cases.

It’s a chilling prediction, I think. I shudder to think of the measure I sometimes use on others being used to measure me. But if I measure with love and charity and genuine concern, I know that I can accept that same measure on myself. It’s a good thing that’s the kind of measure God wants to use on all of us. And he will, if we lay down our pride.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Letting Go of Passing Things

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

Today’s readings

I like food, maybe a little too much! And I like to watch television shows about food. So a while back, I was watching one of my favorite Food Network shows, “Chopped.” If you’ve never seen the show, this is how it works: they start with four chefs, and they give them a basket of really different ingredients, which almost always don’t seem like they would go together, all of which they have to use, to make either an appetizer, main dish, or dessert, depending on the round. The dishes are then presented to a panel of three judges who are chefs and restaurateurs. These judges critique each dish and, of course, pass judgment. As each course goes by, one of the contestant chefs gets “chopped” or eliminated, while the others continue to compete. The winner gets ten thousand dollars.

On this particular episode, one of the chef contestants had a real problem with arrogance. He couldn’t see how anyone could possibly make a dish better than his, even though his always came out looking ragtag, and from what the judges said, tasting the same. He would not listen to any of the critiques, because, well how did these people know anything? He survived the first round, but was quickly eliminated in the second round, mostly because the judges got tired of his arrogance.

That came back to mind when I read today’s gospel reading. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” That had to be horrible news. Because those chief priests and elders were living what they thought was a good life. They were the “good people” of society. Nobody could be noticed by God before they were, surely. But Jesus says they certainly are. Why? Arrogance – again.

Like the arrogant chef, those chief priests and elders refused to listen to any kind of criticism. John the Baptist had preached repentance, and the tax collectors and prostitutes, the riff-raff of society, had listened, and were gaining entrance to the kingdom of God. Meanwhile, those so-called decent folks, the ones who should have known better, were in for an eternity of wailing and grinding their teeth.

The arrogant chef merely lost out on ten thousand dollars. The arrogant chief priests and elders had lost out on quite a bit more: eternal life. Today, we all pray for the grace to overcome our arrogance and accept correction for the sake of our salvation – which is so near at hand!

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the most difficult sins is to think we don’t need God: that’s the sin of pride. It’s a difficult sin because when we shut God out of the picture, we cut off any possibility of reconciliation. This kind of thing is what Isaiah is warning against in today’s first reading. Israel, and we, have to trust in God if we want anything good to happen in our lives. The problem can be that we want God to come to our rescue when things go awry, as they always do when we depend only on ourselves. But if things are going well, we sometimes feel like we can do without God’s direction, thanks anyway.

Advent is a season for us to examine our lives and see if we might have thought ourselves to be lofty recently. How much do we depend on God? Do we rely on his help day after day? Do we consider his will in our daily plans? Are we open to the movement of his Spirit? If not, we might find ourselves tumbling and falling. But if we choose to be aware of God and our need for him, nothing will ever make us stumble. As the Psalmist sings today:

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in princes.

And so we forge onward in Advent, anticipating the coming of Christ, building our houses on his rock-solid foundation. He wants to come to the earth and into our hearts. But we’ll miss him if we don’t let him in.