Sunday, 24 October 2010

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 18:9-14; Ecclesiaticus (Sirach) 35:12-19
Many people in Shaftesbury think that they are among those people who are to be considered as “personages”. Shaftesbury is full of people who attended the finest schools, the great universities, many have fine houses and secure pensions, and perhaps you might add that you are popular among your friends.
But God could not care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that you stand more or less in God's sight.
Thus it is that we heard in our first reading about how "The Lord... is no respecter of personages... [it is] the humble man's prayer [that] pierces the clouds”(Sirach 35:12ff).

I have been thinking these past few days especially, as I’ve pondered this Bible text, how I might view myself in the same way. I might think about how I stand before the world and before God: I have a degree, from a respectable university, a degree in a respectable subject, as a priest I have studied in Rome, even now I am a professor in the seminary, surely I am a “personage”. And yet, God couldn't care less about any of these things. There is not one of these things that mean that I stand more or less in God's sight.
God surely laughs at our pretence of being some kind of "equal" to Him.

Now, it might seem that this is not fair. Surely, you might say, my achievements should mean something to God. “Surely”, you might say, “God must think more of me than that person over there because I am” whatever-you-might-think-yourself-to-be.
Well, and this is perhaps the key point:
our achievements do have a value, and our achievements do change how we stand before God, but how our achievements affect our standing before God depends not so much on the external matter of the achievement but the inner humble spirit with which we did that thing –or not.

The importance of humility can perhaps be most clearly seen when we recognise the destructive effect of its opposite, namely, pride. As I think St Augustine said: It is the distinctive quality of pride that it can enter into ANY outwardly good action and turn it into something evil.
ANY task or chore can be done in pride for our own achievement, or, it can be done as an act of service to God using the talents He has given me as He wishes me to use them.

To turn to the example in today’s gospel, let us consider the good deeds of that Pharisee. There was nothing wrong with his deeds at the outward level. As he said himself: he fasted twice a week, he paid his tithes. However, his good deeds were destroyed by the pride that animated them: his deeds were something that he did not refer to as serving God or as serving his fellow man, rather, his deeds were something that he used to rank himself, as he himself put it, above “the rest of mankind” and especially above “this tax collector here”(Lk 18:11).

A humble person is capable of doing outwardly great things –the same outwardly great things that a proud man does. The difference is that the proud man attributes all of his greatness and all of his success to himself, and he achieves things for himself and for his own greatness, whereas, in contrast, the humble man attributes all of his gifts and talents to the Lord who bestows those gifts and talents, and a humble man achieves great things not for himself but in service to others.
Hence, as we heard in our first reading: it is such a “man who with his whole heart serves God” and it is such a man who "will be accepted"(Sir 35:16). "The Lord... is no respecter of personages”(Sirach 35:12ff).

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