Sunday, 28 October 2007

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

There are three things which a person ought to do in order to be considered virtuous. Virtue consists of praying, fasting and almsgiving—ties in very much with our Lenten observance, if you remember. So, on the one hand, we have the Pharisee who actually fulfils all these three conditions. He prays, he pays tithe and he fasts. And yet he is not held up by Jesus to be a model of virtue. On the other hand, we have the Tax-Collector. He belongs to the class which is traitorous because it colludes with the Roman invaders in taking advantage of the local population. In the parable, the table is turned because he who is seemingly “virtuous”, who does the right thing is not at right with God and instead the contrary is true. A reversal of roles made possible only because of the virtue of humility.

Today, it might be good then to dwell a little more on the long forgotten virtue of humility. We do so by taking a closer look at pride for our friend the Pharisee’s attitude may help us understand better what humility consists of. We are not as distracted as we are disturbed by the Pharisee’s action of gloating over the inability of the Tax-Collector to live up to his standard. He seems to be saying “I am better than this Tax-Collector”, but in reality, the tenor of his prayer is characterised by an attitude that says, “God, here I am doing you a favour”. The Pharisee was self-sufficient, so he wasn’t really comparing himself to the Tax-Collector as he was telling God this: “God, I am good enough to stand before you, before you as your equal”. We never think that we can be like that because we commonly or colloquially describe pride as “don’t action lah” and we have words like “arrogance, vanity, superiority or self-importance” and these words are applied to our relationship with others. We don’t like it when someone comes across as “arrogant”. But in reality, pride has to do with trying to stand equal before God. Lucifer is our perfect example. He was the most beautiful, the brightest and the most intelligent of all the angels. Beauty and light are synonymous with intelligence and truth and the name “Lucifer” means the “bearer of light”. But, Lucifer was blinded by his own light and he became the source of his own glory. He turned away from God as his source of inspiration and light and as a result, committed the sin of pride.

Pride affects us more than we dare to think. The history of mankind is a history of trying to be God. Let me give a couple of examples. The Tower of Babel is testimony to pride. It wasn’t just that we wanted to reach heaven but we wanted to tell God that we could do so with our own strength. Or, how many of you feel that going to confession is a waste of time? The usual comments I hear are “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” and “I am confessing the same sin again and again”. Confession may seem to focus on our sins but really it is more a celebration of God’s merciful love for us. Therefore, to think only in terms of sin is perhaps to commit the sin of pride for the person who says, “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” is actually saying, “God, let me come before you only when I am perfect. Only when I esteem myself as your equal will I stand before you”. [Lord, I am worthy to stand before you not because of You but I am worthy because of me]. When a person despairs of his sins, it could be a sign of false humility and a symptom of pride more than anything else. The unasked question: “Why can’t I be like God who does not sin?”

The point is, I go for confession and I confess the same sins too. In doing so, I express a trust that God’s mercy will shield me from His fierce judgement. The point is that we sin and acceptance of it is the beginning of humility. The Pharisee would have done himself a lot more good if he had stood there and said, “God, I am good only because you are good to me”. If pride makes one an equal of God, then humility makes one acknowledge God as the superior and accept His authority.

We are fascinated by those who came from India or China with nothing on their backs except their shirts. Now they are multimillionaires. We live in an era of the self-made man or woman. The rags-to-riches man is emblematic or a mascot of "having arrived". And we are guided by this philosophy that “to be” is to be self-made, self-taught, self-directed. In fact, Abraham Maslow, in the earlier days of his theory of human personality understood the fulfilment of human potential in terms of self-actualisation. To be is to be self-actualised.

While it is not bad to be self-made or self-actualised, what is required is that we grow in awareness of our dependence on God. When we refuse to accept our creaturely relationship with God, then we will, like Lucifer begin to look at ourselves, our achievements, our capabilities etc as the source of glory.

When we no longer acknowledge God, then we will find it hard to acknowledge what God intends to teach us through His Church—what can the Church teach us? Obedience fosters humility, but who needs to obey, who needs to listen to anyone else when one is the source of one’s own glory?

Humility is the forgotten virtue. Humility comes from the Latin word “humus” meaning soil or earth. The humble person is one who stands before God with his or her feet firmly planted in the ground. It is easy to think that the Pharisee suffered from being self-righteous or judgemental. But it is more profound than being judgemental. The Tax-Collector stood there knowing that with God and before God, humility is the only posture possible a creature can take before his creator. He has come to the profound realisation that of his own, he was worth nothing but with God, he was worth everything.