Sunday, 16 July 2017

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

There are two parts to the Gospel for this Sunday and they both seem unrelated. The first part is found also in Luke's Gospel. The similarity would suggest that both Evangelists drew inspiration from a common source of material. This part is sometimes called a synoptic thunderbolt from the Johannine sky because the narrative style is atypical of the Evangelists. It is rather evocative of the long discourses found in the Fourth Gospel.

The second part is definitely Matthean--and its connexion to the first reading provides us with the theme of humility. Humility is defined as an ordered virtue that prevents a person from either over-reaching or under-valuing himself. It is opposed to pride as well as to an immoderate abnegation of self to the point that one does not acknowledge God's gifts and to use them accordingly for His greater glory.

In a narcissistic culture that esteems self-idolatry, what place does humility have in Christian spirituality? Not only is our culture narcissistic but it is also one that prizes independence and the virtues of self-reliance and freedom. Thus, the yoke that Jesus proposes finds no place in such a culture. It runs against a convention that views dependency as weakness or subservience. The heroic virtues associated with sanctity does not rhyme with Romanticism's unique individual who grapples alone with whatever curve balls life throws at it. He is a self-sufficient hero with the strength of character to go against the flow as personified by mavericks like Macgyver or Indiana Jones. How is humility to be conceived in such characters? For them, humility is almost like an attribute that one possesses. Hence, for the self-made man, to be called "humble' certainly looks good on one's resumé.

But, if humility is considered a moral virtue, then it is substantially an expression of a relationship. In other words, humility is relational. At the beginning, I mentioned the apparent unrelatedness between the two parts of the Gospel. Actually, the so-called Johannine Discourse reveals a deep affection that exists between Jesus and His Father. It is an intense intimacy that we have been invited to. It is within this familiarity that humility makes sense. The yoke is therefore a potent symbol of knowledge rather than a shameful sign of slavery. Otherwise, emptied of its relational content, humility can only appear as a caricature of what it is not supposed to be--a kind of pusillanimity or rather a timidity of spirit. And if it were merely an attribute, then it describes someone who is pretty much congenial.

How do we preach humility in a go-getter society without it coming across as pusillanimous? If humility is relational, then it is also a virtue for heaven. When God is not in our picture, we will always be afraid that we might lose out. For example, the need to "justify" oneself. Here, the reference is not to the notion of justification and salvation but rather the need to explain oneself. Our fear has conflated both misunderstanding with loss in the sense that to be misunderstood signals a certain loss. Thus, I want my superiors or bosses to understand me. We all inhabit a wounded world holding on to the myth that our stories are not complete unless they are told. Is it any wonder why we need to have biopics or docudramas and our ever present eulogies delivered at Masses?

But, how about letting the Lord complete our stories, not here but in heaven?

Humility is a relationship with heaven. Saint Augustine termed it a fundamental virtue. So, when we describe a person as humble, it may come across as if it were a virtue possessed. The thing is, we do not "possess" it. When we consider the disparate parts of the Gospel, that is, the Johannine discourse and the invitation to bear the yoke of a humble Jesus, then we realise that humility is less an attribute possessed and more a relationship entered into.

To be humble requires that one has a relationship with both the Lord and heaven we are destined for. A recognition that one can afford not to fight not because of fear but because there is confidence in the Lord and that a loss here on earth of prestige, honour and power is never a loss in absolute terms. According to Saint Teresa of Avila, humility is truth. If it is truth about who I am, then humility is also truth about who God is. He is the only one who will never betray our trust in Him. Saint John Vianney counsels that one should pray for the grace to know that we are nothing of ourselves, and that our corporal as well as our spiritual welfare proceeds from God alone. Hence, without humility being a relational virtue, it will become be a parody of what it is supposed to be.

C.S. Lewis reminds us: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. God can be trusted to think of us more than we can ever that it is possible to think oneself less. Thus, humility is not so much a "quality" that one possesses but a relationship that one enters into. It is within this familiarity that saintly counsels make sense: "O Master, grant that I may never seek, so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul" or "Teach me to serve You as You deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to seek for reward, save that of knowing that I do Your will".