Tenth Sunday after Pentecost-20 July AD 2008
Thomas à Kempis on Mount Agnes
[Ordinary of the Mass]
“... A humble rustic who serves God is better than a
proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars. He
who knows himself well becomes small in his own eyes, and is not happy when
praised by men.”
Those words were written roughly 600 years ago by a Dutch
priest named Thomas à Kempis in a little book called The Imitation of
Christ. Thomas was one of the early members of the Brethren of the Common
Life, a group of lay men and women-self supporting people dedicated to growth in
the spiritual life, to producing good Catholic literature, and promoting
Catholic education. I often make the
mistake of referring to him as “Saint Thomas,” but, at least to date, he was
never canonized. I suspect that will have to wait for a less worldly era in the
Church, for the hallmark of the Brethren of the Common Life, and the underlying
theme of The Imitation of Christ is humility.
If it wasn’t obvious to you, humility was the subject of
today's Gospel. I will admit, though, that this Gospel is one of those which
requires a bit of explanation-one that can be misleading or confusing when we
hear it for the first time, and take it out of context.
As a word of background, you should know that the
Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews-those who were zealous about
keeping the Commandments, and who interpreted the religious laws for the people.
They were the descendants of the Machabees whose exploits in defending the
Jewish religion and particularly the Law of Moses are narrated in the last two
books of the Old Testament. Perhaps because of their famous ancestors, they
tended to be “show-offs” about their religion.
A Publican was a Jew who collected taxes for the Romans.
The Romans would levy the tax, but instead of collecting it themselves, they
would sell the right to collect the tax to one of the locals-in modern terms,
they “sold their accounts receivable.” You can imagine how well liked the
Publicans were amongst the Jews! Worse than the Roman conquerors, these were
Jews who seemed to have sold out their own people.
In the Gospel, our Lord is not condemning the Pharisee for
what he has done, but rather for his opinion of himself after he has done it.
Keeping the Commandments is good. Fasting is good. Giving tithes for the support
of the church is good. But taking credit for being so good, and comparing one's
self to others who are less good, is loathsome in God's eyes.
And, likewise, he is not praising the Publican for
his mis-deeds, but rather for his humility. Our Lord is not praising him
for extorting the foreigner's taxes from his own people, nor for any of the
other sins of which he was conscious. Our Lord praised him because he recognized
his limitations, and was humble enough to put his trust in God.
Without hearing the words of St. Paul, the Publican knew
that all of our gifts are “the work of one and the same Spirit, who allots to
everyone, according as he will.” We are wrong, in other words, to take too
much credit for our good works, because they are really the works of God,
without whom we could do nothing-and “who rewards in secret.”
We are cautioned in this lesson, to avoid the sin of
pride. But we have to recognize that “pride” is a somewhat ambiguous
word in English. There is nothing wrong with taking reasonable pride in things
like our workmanship, our honesty, our punctuality, or even in our appearance.
What we are cautioned about is to avoid thinking that our
good works are exclusively ours-that we do them without help from God or any
other person. We are particularly cautioned about contrasting ourselves with
those around us; “I am glad that I am not like this Publican.” We are
standing at the threshold of serious sin when we begin to think of ourselves as
being materially superior to the next person, for that is false pride.
This sort of false pride is the beginning of all sin. It
is the sin of the fallen angels, who thought they were too beautiful to serve
God-“I will not serve,” is the sin of fallen Israel, and often a motto for
Lucifer. “I will exalt my throne
above the stars of God ... I will be like the most High.
It is the sin of Adam and Eve, who were convinced that they would become as
knowledgeable as God if they ate the forbidden fruit.
It is also the root of every sin since Adam's. Man
wouldn't steal if he didn't think he was more important than his neighbor, with
a superior right to his property. He wouldn't murder if he didn't think he had a
greater right to life and property than his victim. He wouldn't commit adultery
if his perception of marital rights wasn't distorted by pride. He wouldn't give
up the practice of his religion if pride didn't convinced him that he was as
important as any old fashioned notion of God. Pride is very much the sin of the
modern era-of the secular humanism which champions the worth of man at the
expense of God.
But pride has a funny way of finding its own punishment.
It is a sin so hateful to God that he allows the sinner to punish himself by
falling into the most degrading of vices. It doesn't take much imagination to
see what will happen to a person who continuously indulges himself.
The alternative, of course, is what we see in the
Publican. The antidote for pride is humility-the acknowledgement that the good
things we have and do, come from God and with the help of other people. It is
the acknowledgement that all those around us were created by God with the same
human dignity, even if their talents differ. By the way, humility is not any
sort of false claim to be less than we really are. Continuously boasting of our
limitations is just another form of pride-being "proud of our
humility" as we sometimes jokingly say. The truly humble person will
accurately know both his strengths and his weaknesses. He won't be afraid to use
his gifts for the glory of God, for his neighbor, or even for himself-but he
also won't be expecting to hear how wonderful he is, or how much better he is
than his peers.
Pride carries the seeds of its own downfall, because it
rejects the help of God and neighbor so essential to the performance of good
works. It is hateful to God, and often to man-most everyone dislikes having to
listen to a braggart!
Humility, on the other hand, brings its own reward. It
offends no one, and often motivates us to seek the help of God and fellow men in
accomplishing the things that are truly good in this life.
Remember our Lord's words: “Everyone who exalts himself
shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
“... A humble rustic who serves God is better than a
proud intellectual who neglects his soul
to study the course of the stars.”
Genesis iii: 4-7.