My great-aunt Dorothy lived to be almost a hundred years old by guiding her life according to a mysterious source of wisdom known as “they.”<!–[if supportFields]>PRIVATE <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
For instance, “they” say that eggs are bad for you. And so, at 95, Aunt Dorothy decided to stop eating eggs.
Not that “they” is always right. “They say coffee keeps you awake,” she told me once, “but it’s not true. I never drink coffee yet I often have trouble sleeping.”
Every once in a while “they” is completely off the wall, but there’s no convincing Dorothy. And of course it’s pretty hard to refute an anonymous authority.
You and I might be too sophisticated to put much stock in what “they” say, but I’ll bet almost every one of us likes to think about what “they” do.
Take today’s readings. About whom are the first reading and gospel speaking? Why “them” of course. It’s clear: the first reading is about Jewish priests, and the Gospel’s about scribes and Pharisees.
Whew, that was close. I’m not Jewish, or a scribe, or a pharisee.
But… oops…. I am a priest. Maybe this passage isabout priests, about religious leaders. Not about them, but about me. Perhaps I should preach about the faithlessness of the clergy, about hypocrisy and ambition in our ranks.
But there’s two problems with that. The first, of course, is that the betrayal of trust by a small number of priests and religious is something we’ve been dealing with for years, something that doesn’t really need yet another analysis, however tragic and important that issue is.
But the second problem is that, for everyone except me and Father Giovanni, a homily about priests would be about “them.” They do this. They don’t do that. If these texts are mainly to correct and instruct priests, they should be read on retreat, or in the breviary, or the clergy newsletter.
What’s really important, in my view, is that each of us hear the Word as it applies to us, not to “them,” not to others.
And these readings do apply to us: in a special way to us priests, certainly, but fundamentally to every baptized soul. Because in baptism we are all called to a share in Christ’s priesthood, just as by original sin we all have a share in whatever is was that made it easier for the scribes and Pharisees to preach faith than to practise it.
Today’s liturgy puts before us those two scary H-words: humility and hypocrisy. It challenges us to take a long and a hard look at ourselves. Are we walking the talk? Is our religious faith getting translated into daily life?
Today’s scriptures offer caricatures of hypocrisy. Priests who are so corrupt that they cause spiritual harm to their people. Religious leaders who glory in social prestige and strut with self-importance. Those things are easy to spot. But what about the subtle, more pernicious, more soul-destroying kind of hypocrisy? That’s where we need to worry.
Some years ago, a newly-appointed member of the US cabinet urged the American people to “watch what we do and not what we say.” Unfortunately for him, the American people took him at his word and he went to jail.
But the credibility gap–the gap between our words and our deeds–is not just a danger for clergy or politicians. I once knew a woman who attended Mass faithfully, donated regularly to the Church, and who ignored entirely the emotional and practical needs of an elderly relative living eight blocks away. Is this not more dangerous than a fondness for titles or the seats of honour at a banquet?
Every once in a while we diagnose hypocrisy in a flash. Like a bolt out of the blue I realize “my golly, I’ve got to do something about those long tassels on my phylacteries.” Much more often, we diagnose hypocrisy by self-examination, by reflection, by honest and prayerful thought. We need to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit without having our defences in place.
But the diagnosis isn’t the cure. The antidote to hypocrisy is humility. That’s why today’s psalm is crucial to God’s message to us this Sunday. It’s about humility, the virtue that authenticates and orders all others.
You might call humility the DOS or the Windows–the operating system–of the spiritual life. You can be filled with faith, hope or love and yet live in spiritual chaos if you take pride in these accomplishments.
I read once of an English archbishop sitting next to a nobleman at dinner who remarked “Your Grace, that chaplain of yours is a very extraordinary man.”
The archbishop agreed, adding “Had he but the gift of humility, he would be the most extraordinary man in Europe.”
We are all called to humility, not only because it is essential to authentic spirituality, but mostly because it is essential to the imitation of Christ—Christ, who did not cling to his equality with God but took the form of a slave, as St. Paul wrote. And in the Gospel Jesus tells us directly: learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.
Today’s psalm is the prayer of a humble person. But if we make it our own, if we pray these words with expectation, we will eventually make the psalmist’s words our own.
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