October 27, 2019 • 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1: Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 35:15–17, 20–22
Psalm 33:2–3, 17–18, 19, 23
Reading 2: 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
Gospel: Luke 18:9–14
Christianity is a religion of paradoxes. and it could be said that Christ’s incarnation is the greatest paradox of all. In it we see God humble himself to become a man, but not a great man even. Rather, he became the most vulnerable of all men, a tiny baby. God in Christ submitted himself for years as a child to his parents. God HAD parents! The Creator became subject to the created. The created gave birth to the Creator. And with all of these things in mind, we turn to today’s readings which offer another paradox. Those who put themselves first will be last, and the last and the most humble of all, will be the greatest. God pleads for humility from us, but it seems to me that this is the most difficult thing of all, at times.
Our world, as we have made it, is just not cut out for humility. People are looking to be noticed. They blow their own horns. They compare themselves, usually very favorably, with their relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. We all want our day in the spotlight. Sensationalist news abounds, gossip magazines flourish, ugly rumors come from the highest places. We gently — or not so gently — step on others so that we can appear greater to other people. We drop names of those whom we have met, who have achieved some sort of fame. We want the choicest places and positions. We feel sorry for ourselves and want others to know that we are injured. The ones that are paied the highest wage often seem to work the fewest hours and get the best benefits. When budgets are cut, it is often on the backs of the lowest paid workers. We surround ourselves with those who will stroke our egos and we go out of our way to give ourselves an abundant life. But from what Scripture tells us, we are often abundant in all the wrong areas. We abound in the flesh, but we are deficient in the spirit.
Our Gospel reading today highlights this principle with the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as the holiest of the holy. St. Paul himself bragged that he was a Pharisee of Pharisees. and that as to the law, he was blameless. But he also said that he counted all that as nothing in comparison with knowing Christ as Lord. The Pharisees as a group were certainly very righteous-looking in their activities, but Jesus had nothing to say about them other than scathing remarks. They were hypocrites, not because they lived righteous lives on the outside, but because this righteous living blinded them to their own empty spiritual life.
The tax collector is hailed in this parable as the one accepted by God, not because of his unrighteous actions, but because of his spiritual insight into himself and his relationship with God. To get the full feeling of what we are seeing in this parable, I will quote John Bergsma’s commentary on this reading:
Many tax collectors were unjust, abusive persons who took advantage of others in society, even and including the poor. Jesus’ parable is a bit shocking for his contemporaries, because most Jews were justifiably irate at the way Jewish tax collectors collaborated with the Roman regime. They were parasites on society and a social scourge, similar to how we would view drug dealers today. Imagine: “A drug lord went up to pray, “Oh, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That would be something similar to the impact for Jesus’ fellow Jews.
As someone who lives in a downtown core area with loads of drug dealers and addicts roaming around, that hit home. So how do we reconcile what Paul says in 2 Timothy about himself?
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Is this not boasting like the Pharisee in the parable? No! St. Paul is doing exactly what the tax collector did. He is engaging in a bit of spiritual insight into himself and his relationship with God. Notice that he is not comparing himself with anyone else, as being either better than or less than. In his life as a believer, St. Paul has practiced the fine art of recollection, which is necessary for all who want to increase in virtue. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia, we learn that:
Recollection, as understood in respect to the spiritual life, means attention to the presence of God in the soul. It includes the withdrawal of the mind from external and earthly affairs in order to attend to God and Divine things. It is the same as interior solitude in which the soul is alone with God. – http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12676b.htm
Paul knew what his life in Christ had been and he knew exactly where he stood with God, because he practiced God’s presence. The Pharisee, on the other hand, only knew — or THOUGHT he knew — where he stood in regard to those whom he deemed less than himself. The tax collector, as sinful as he likely was, had a moment of clarity in regard to who he was and who God was, and it was this that brought about his stunning show of humility and his acceptance by God.
What is true humility? Referring to the old Catholic Encycopedia again:
The virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility,” he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. IV, ch. lv, tr. Rickaby).
To guard against an erroneous idea of humility, it is necessary to explain the manner in which we ought to esteem our own gifts in reference to the gifts of others, if called upon to make a comparison. Humility does not require us to esteem the gifts and graces which God has granted us, in the supernatural order, less than similar gifts and graces which appear in others. No one should esteem less in himself than in others these gifts of God which are to be valued above all things according to the words of St. Paul: “That we may know the things that are given us from God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). Neither does humility require us in our own estimation to think less of the natural gifts we possess than of similar, or of inferior, gifts in our neighbours; otherwise, as St. Thomas teaches, it would behoove everyone to consider himself a greater sinner or a greater fool than his neighbor; for the Apostle without, any prejudice to humility, was able to say: “We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles sinners” (Galatians 2:15). A man, however, may generally esteem some good in his neighbor which he does not himself possess, or acknowledge some defect or evil in himself which he does not perceive in his neighbor, so that, whenever anyone subjects himself out of humility to an equal or to an inferior, he does so because he takes that equal or inferior to be his superior in some respect. Thus we may interpret the humble expressions of the saints as true and sincere. Besides, their great love of God caused them to see the malice of their own faults and sins in a clearer light than that which is ordinarily given to persons who are not saints. – http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm
That last line explains it well. Our great love of God — and if you love someone you strive to get to know him better — is what causes us to see ourselves in a clearer light. If we can see ourselves clearly, we will realize how much we have to work on, and so the sins of others will also be seen in that light. On Thursday, at his early morning Mass, Pope Francis said, “We need to mind our own business to grow in holiness.” Like the Pharisee, so often we are apprised about everyone else’s spiritual state, yet we are ignorant about our own.
“To live a holier life,” he said, “Christians need to pay attention to that struggle and not wander through life without noticing what’s happening.… So often we Christians are busy with so many things, including good ones, but what is going on inside you?” the pope asked.
The spiritual life “is a struggle between good and evil, but it’s not an abstract good and an abstract evil,” he said. “It’s between the good that the Holy Spirit inspires us to do and the bad that the evil spirit inspires us to do. It’s a struggle, a struggle we all have.… If one of us were to say, ‘But I don’t feel this, I’m blessed, I live calmly, in peace,’” he said he would respond, “You are not blessed. You are someone anesthetized, who doesn’t understand what is happening.… Sometimes,” he said, it seems that “we know what is happening in our neighborhood, what’s going on in the next-door neighbor’s house, but we don’t know what’s going on inside us.” – https://www.catholicregister.org/faith/homilies/item/30549-pope-francis-mind-your-own-business-to-grow-in-holiness
To know God is to finally begin to truly know ourselves. And to finally know ourselves in the light of God is to know what humility is. St. Josemaría Escrivá developed 17 signs to test our humility. They are not for the fainthearted:
- Thinking that what you do or say is better than what others do or say;
- Always wanting to get your own way;
- Arguing when you are not right or — when you are — insisting stubbornly or with bad manners;
- Giving your opinion without being asked for it, when charity does not demand you to do so;
- Despising the point of view of others;
- Not being aware that all the gifts and qualities you have are on loan;
- Not acknowledging that you are unworthy of all honor or esteem, even the ground you are treading on or the things you own;
- Mentioning yourself as an example in conversation;
- Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you;
- Making excuses when rebuked;
- Hiding some humiliating faults from your director, so that he may not lose the good opinion he has of you;
- Hearing praise with satisfaction, or being glad that others have spoken well of you;
- Being hurt that others are held in greater esteem than you;
- Refusing to carry out menial tasks;
- Seeking or wanting to be singled out;
- Letting drop words of self-praise in conversation, or words that might show your honesty, your wit or skill, your professional prestige…;
- Being ashamed of not having certain possessions.…
It’s not easy to be humble. As C.S. Lewis says, the key to humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.