Saturday, October 23, 2010

Humility: The Key to Communion with God and Others (Reflection on the readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Nearly all of us can probably readily bring to mind persons who we've run across that have an aura of being "high and mighty" and those who are "down to earth." The "high and mighty" type basically operate out of a "superiority complex" and look down upon others for a host of reasons. The "down to earth" type is quite the opposite: they are easy to approach and get along with, are fairly non-judgmental, and don't have to make their presence "felt" when they occupy space shared by others.

In the Gospel (Luke 8:9-14) we have two characters who are "prototypes" of the above dispositions. The Pharisee comes off as filled with himself while the tax-collector is much more grounded and balanced in his self-assessment. It's important to note that this teaching of Jesus didn't intend to indict the Pharisees on the whole (some were secret followers of Jesus and others sympathetic to his cause) but was really meant to 1) compare and contrast two basic attitudes toward God and others and 2) lift up the attitude or disposition of the tax-collector as exemplary (which would have been quite shocking to some of Jesus' hearers, because, after all, tax-collectors colluded with the occupying Roman authority and were therefore "reprobate" in the eyes of many!)

An important question to ask in unlocking the meaning of the Gospel is precisely "why" the tax collector was ultimately justified by God and not the Pharisee. When we consider that to be "justified" by God means to be in right relationship or communion with God, this charts a course for a fruitful understanding. To begin with, at the heart of the matter is not a certain piety and outwardly expression but an inner attitude and fundamental orientation. God is not glorified through the bending of knees, a solemn appearance, the folding of one's hands, or other such gesture. These mean little or nothing if they are not matched by the inner awareness of who God is, who we are in relation to God, and who we are in relation to others.

The Pharisee clearly sees himself as almost on an even par with God and superior to others. Really his prayer smacks of a monologue rather than a dialogue with God. His prayer really amounts to: "Dear Me, thank you for Me, geez....aren't I great!!" The tax collector, on the other hand, recognizes that God is merciful, that he is in need of mercy, and that he's therefore in the same boat with everyone else!!

The tax collector leaves the temple justified by God, in part, because he's filled with humility. The root of this word, the Latin word "humus", means "soil or earth." The tax collector is "down to earth" and grounded in the fundamental awareness of his need of God, his own state-of-affairs, and, by extension, his solidarity with others. Above all, the tax-collector leaves the temple justified because he has "stooped to God's level" in embracing the totality of his condition and is therefore drawn into fuller communion with God.

By "stooping to God's level" I mean that in becoming human and choosing to frequent the lowly, "earthy" places of Palestine (i.e., Galilee), God in Christ deigned to live an imminently grounded, "down to earth" existence. In Christ God embraces the totality of human complexity, weakness, neediness, and the fragile beauty of our condition. By being grounded and down to earth, we are justified because we encounter and commune with God precisely where God "spends" so much of his time: in all the many "Galilees", or tense, broken, fragile, needy, yet oftentimes beautiful spaces/places that make up our life, our relationships, and our world. Pat, TOR


Laurel said...

Amen! We are part of the whole, and recognizing our need for God and for one another is a testament to that. (1 Cor. 12:24-26)
"...But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."