Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 7-9-17
Peace be with You,
Last weekend, we reflected upon Christ’s desire to be identified with the human family. The main thrust of our reflection centered upon the Church, which, as we discussed, is unlike any human organization, but is instead an organism; the living Body of Christ, of whom, through the sacred waters of baptism, we become members. Consequently we briefly discussed how this mystery, or sacrament as the Church calls it, changes our ontological position in life such that we actually begin to be incorporated into the Divine Life here and now, called with the help of God’s grace to incorporate ourselves into the dynamics of Trinitarian life which is Love Itself (cf. 1 John 4:8). It was also mentioned that this week’s discussion would be closely related to the concept of the fear of the Lord spoken of two weeks ago, when we likened it to awestruck wonder at both the absolute mysterious nature of our God and his desire to love us. This week we will focus on two central qualities of divine perfection demonstrated by the Son of God Incarnate, humility and meekness.
Every society has its axioms which it tosses about like the proverbial trump card laid down in conversation so as to call the attention of one’s interlocutor to an accepted tidbit of wisdom that has been handed down from generation to generation. In our society we often hear individuals chide one another with the phrase, “try living in the real world.” To be sure, this nugget of knowledge is often used by parents in a (all too often) vain attempt to bring their now enlightened teenage son or daughter back down to earth and see things “as they really are.” However, we all know that this little verbal missile has a habit of making an appearance in casual conversations of a, let’s just say informative nature, as we share the experience of a recent encounter with one who may think quite a lot of themselves.
I say all of this, one, because the statement itself has much colloquial wisdom about it, especially in a day and age where there is a constant temptation to make oneself the center of attention through social media, even though quite often the only one whose attention we really have is ourselves, which of course only exacerbates the situation. We simply have a hard time maintaining a realistic view of ourselves and we have had so from the very beginning, i.e. from just a short while after God created the human race. Secondly, I bring it up in order to point out that what people usually mean by this has very little to do with reality itself. Take for example the exchange between a parent and child; what the parent might mean is that their child will one day have to learn how to provide for themselves and become an independent self-made and self-sustaining individual. This, no doubt, is a core virtue (if such a concept ought even to bear the name virtue) of the American spirit. And while there is great dignity in the ability to work hard and care for one’s responsibilities, at bottom the idea is utterly fantastical; the American dream of the self-made, self-sustaining, and independent individual has always been and will forever more remain such, an element of fiction.
I say this not to trample upon the country I call home, especially so soon after celebrating the birth of our nation; nor do I mean to suggest that this is an “American” problem (though I do find it quite ingrained in our collective mentality). As I said before this is a problem we (as a human family) have had from the beginning, we simply fail to understand and surrender to the idea that we are creatures who by nature are vessels of the divine life and that apart from this the lives we live are something less than real, less than the fullness of life we were created for. And I firmly believe it is a problem of the imagination, but not an over-active imagination, as one might assume, but instead, a narrow and sluggish imagination. In what may seem like a bit of irony, I would suggest, that the virtues of humility and meekness are actually the foundation of a robust imagination. This is a reality that our readings for today make clear to us.
Although it may not seem to be the case, the imagination is an essential ingredient when it comes to understanding what Jesus has to tell us in our gospel reading for today. In fact, his words are carefully constructed so as to awaken the imagination of his listeners, both then and now. This becomes more clear when we realize that Jesus, and the evangelist commemorating this scene for us in the Sacred text, are drawing heavily upon the Hebrew Scriptures (what we typically call the Old Testament) in relating the message we hear.
Our first reading provides the most obvious example. The passage ought to sound familiar to us as we heard a portion of it quoted by Matthew in the processional gospel reading used for Palm Sunday (cf. Matt. 21:1-11); specifically the verse which reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zec. 9:9). Hearing the verse over again is beneficial as it provides us with an example of the sort of imaginative malaise we suffer from. Upon hearing the verse, if you are familiar with it at all, your first assumption is probably something along the lines of, “yeh, sounds like Jesus to me, makes sense.” But in making such an assumption you immediately lose the shock value of the whole thing, you lose the sense of wonder that the evangelist is attempting to convey (and thus succumb to the wisdom of another colloquial phrase having to do with the word “assume” which fits rather nicely with this particular passage). You see the when used in its proper historical context, the words of the prophet were completely mundane as at that time royalty would have indeed ridden on a donkey. However, by the time our Lord mounted a like beast of burden it had become just that and no more having been surpassed by the horse as the preferred vehicle of choice among the royal class. So when those who heard the writing of Matthew telling them that this man who was entering upon a donkey was a king, and that his very mounting of said beast of burden was proof itself, it was the equivalent of someone telling us that the president of the United States would be arriving to town in a Volkswagen Beetle. Thus, in order to understand the significance of the event one would have to know the passage from Zechariah, and how many of us do?
With this much of the story it seems as though we have gone astray in our reflection, after all the parallel seems more apropos to Palm Sunday than it does to today’s gospel. However, once again the protest deprives us of the deeper truth being related. In order to see this we must take a step back and consider the wider context. The passage we hear are verses 25-30 of chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel. The beginning of the chapter immediately follows the words of Jesus we heard last week concerning the welcoming of a disciple as though welcoming himself. The chapter begins with the question posed by the disciples of John the Baptist concerning Jesus’ identity. As part of his response Jesus proclaims the greatness of John the Baptist while denouncing the worldview of the unbelievers of his (and our) generation saying: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collector and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt. 11:16-19). Jesus then “began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Matt. 11:20). Notice please what Jesus is saying, he is upbraiding the crowd for their faulty imagination, a faulty imagination which is the result of not having paid attention to the education they had been receiving as a people throughout the generations as to who God was and to who his Messiah would be (more on this later). Instead, because of their narrow imagination they neither believed the words of Christ concerning his identity (e.g. John 8:58 & 10:30) nor the works he performed which testified to his divinity as they echoed the work of God in the Old Testament; for instance the calming of the storm in Mark 4:35-41 demonstrating control over creation or the raising of Lazarus in John 11:38-44 demonstrating control over life itself; a disbelief Jesus chided again and again (cf. John 10:38 & 14:11). Moreover, this broader context parallels exactly that of Zechariah chapter 9 (our first reading for today) as there too the first part of the chapter contains the prophet’s words of judgment of the unrepentant nations (vv. 1-8).
There is an additional element which we have drawn from the wider context which gets us closer to our targeted concepts of humility and meekness. This element is found in Jesus words: “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Once again we may be immune to the phrase, or thrown off due to the female gender pronoun used, however Jesus is here drawing upon the Jewish wisdom tradition to speak of himself as Wisdom personified. For example we find this in the Book of Proverbs where Wisdom’s part in creation is spoken of: “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:29-31). Additionally, we find these words included in an autobiographical poem of Wisdom contained in the Book of Sirach: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction…Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction…See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity” (Sirach 51:23, 26 & 27). There ought to be little doubt that Jesus is here drawing and affirming this tradition when he echoes these words of Wisdom in our passage for today saying: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Notice please how extraordinary this is! Wisdom itself who as God had always been our home and who has been at work educating the human family throughout history through the Law and the Prophets has become Incarnate, and has done so in order to teach us the way to our happy homeland that could no longer be ignored by “deliberately making himself the pavement under our feet along which we could return home” (St. Augustine of Hippo, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.17,16).
Humility and meekness are essential to making our way home where alone we can be happy. The reason for this is, as we saw last week that in order to follow Christ we must love rightly (cf. Matt. 10:37), a love he described as ‘taking up our cross and following him; (cf. Matt. 10:38). Today this cross is revealed as an easy yoke of love, a burden to be borne with humility and meekness. Why? Humility has etymological roots in the Latin humus, meaning ground, and thus calls us to reality, to see things as they really are including ourselves, precisely in order that we may love rightly, i.e. so that we might have our loves rightly ordered with love for God above all else and love for all else through, with and in God. Meekness is perhaps less easily understood because of its infrequent use, however, St. Gregory of Nyssa describes meekness as being reasonable so as to not be easily disturbed by passionate movements of the soul (The Beatitudes, Sermon 2), while St. Augustine additionally inserts under its umbrella a sort of teachable quality which one possesses, allowing one to learn from Scripture and “not make bold to censure what appears a stumbling block to the uninstructed and become intractable by obstinate argumentation” (The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Bk 1.3). At this point it seems that we have found our way back to the beginning of our conversation and additionally an answer of why it is that we have so much trouble living in the real world seems to have interpolated itself. Humility and meekness are not qualities we often hear spoken of, but this is only because we have so little an ability to imagine the profound beauty of the human person as intended by God.
My friends, today our God calls us to imitate the humility and meekness of his only begotten Son, who though having equality with God did not desire to possess it for himself through pride or vanity, but instead desired that those who bore his image from the beginning might once again be made ready to be filled with the divine life. St. Gregory of Nyssa describes a beautiful image of God as the divine artist, initially sketching out the divine image, the imago Dei, upon the nature of humanity in order that this image of transcendent beauty and beatitude might reflect the only true Beauty and Happiness to the world (cf. The Beatitudes, Sermon 1). With this image Gregory is here describing an additional element of importance concerning human nature known as the capax Dei. And it is precisely at this point which our imaginations totally fail, for the capax Dei is nothing other than our capacity for God, our capacity to participate in the very life of our God who is Love, Beauty, Wisdom and Happiness Itself. Ordinarily our minds simply refuse to acknowledge such an idea, swatting it away in midair as though it were some fanciful notion. The trouble of course is that we completely lack the ability to fathom the love of our God, and it is thus that the Son of God humbled himself, so that the human imagination might only begin to contemplate the depth of his desire for our happiness! Look around you, see the diversity, no life could possibly learn all there is to learn about the majesty of creation, it seems infinite. Now consider to yourself that it was all put there precisely so that our beautiful God could walk with us for eternity, explaining to us how every song a bird sings and every breeze the wind blows proclaims his love for the world. Our reaction is meant to be childlike (Matt. 11:25), a giggle, huge smile, maybe even shriek of joy, as the human mind comes to recognize ever more profoundly the all-pervading love of its Creator. This is the world as it was meant to be and today we are called to live in this, the real world.
Loving Father, the heavens proclaim to us your majesty and the earth sings your humility; provide us with the grace this day to present ourselves to you as the humble canvases upon which you transcribe your eternal Word, Jesus Christ. May our every step be a stroke of your brush so that our journey home might become part of the masterful work whose center is Christ, who lives with you in the eternal embrace of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,