This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 23:1–12:
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’”
“As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
If nothing else, people have one common experience in life, even if they refuse to recognize it: being humbled. Everyone has had an abrupt discovery of their limitations, a public exposure of their errors, in some way and scale. I’ve had too many to count, and some of the experiences were downright comical — like the time I began to get a little too confident in my beginner Italian and ordered soccer for dinner at a restaurant in Rome. The waiter looked puzzled, left, and turned on the TV to show the game. It took me several minutes to realize my error, and actually order food for dinner … in English, as I recall. Dio mio!
I don’t mind telling the comical stories. It’s the truly humbling experiences that I’d rather keep to myself. Those are more painful and embarrassing, sometimes even damaging; they remind me that I’m as flawed as everyone else even if my circumstances might be better than those of most others. Even when we don’t acknowledge these experiences, we all have them, because we all have limitations and we all run up against them. And yet, even though we may be humbled repeatedly, those experiences do not necessarily mean we have learned to develop humility.
What does it mean to be humble, and how does it differ from being humbled? Mac Davis’ novelty song It’s Hard to be Humble gives us a comic look at the problem (as I noted in a previous Sunday reflection.) The singer extols his own perfection while ignoring his painfully obvious shortcomings, even when others point it out to him. We all laugh along, not just because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it’s so familiar. The song allows us to laugh at ourselves, but in a weird way to also continue our denial, too. “Hey, I’m not that bad,” we tell ourselves, “so I must be OK.”
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Today’s first reading from Malachi gives us a glimpse into the difference being humbled and being humble, and why it matters. The Lord anointed Malachi as a prophet in the period immediately after the three returns from Babylonian captivity, after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been destroyed. The Lord’s people could not possibly have been more humbled than after the destruction of their nations and the fall of the first temple, and should have returned from their long captivity with a greater sense of humility and service to God.
Instead, Malachi warns in the book of his teachings, the Judeans seem to have wasted no time in adopting all of their earlier arrogance and corruption. The people have offered lame and infirm livestock for sacrifice, the Lord accuses in the passage immediately preceding the reading. In this reading, Malachi accuses the people of engaging in false prophecy, false judgment, and adultery, and then end his prophetic teachings by calling the Judeans back to humility before the Lord. They have once again dismissed the Lord and focused only on themselves.
“Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us?” Malachi asks. “Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus underscores the same problem, this time with the leadership caste in Jerusalem. A series of disputations with Jesus made it clear the Pharisees and Sadducees were focused only on serving themselves and their own power, not on the worship of the Lord. They had legitimate legal authority over the Judeans, Jesus notes, but no moral authority.
Therefore, Jesus tells the people, obey them but do not emulate them, for to do so would be to fall into the same trap of arrogance and hypocrisy. “All their works are performed to be seen,” Jesus warns, not for the good of the people or to praise the Lord. They have fallen into vanity of an all-too-familiar type — believing that their authority came from themselves and that their gifts only exist to promote their own desires. They thought that they were innately better than their fellow Judeans.
“Have we all not the one father? Has not the one God created us?”
In both cases, the leadership/priestly caste had been humbled repeatedly. Malachi warned them in his prophecy about their lack of humility and flagrant sins. John the Baptist, about whom Malachi prophesied in his third and fourth chapters, tried to warn the priests and potentates in Jesus’ time of the same issues. They exalted themselves, over and over again, and they were humbled just as often. Yet, they never learned humility, and it resulted in a final destruction of the temple authority a generation after Jesus’ crucifixion.
These examples and others throughout the arc of salvation history teach us the wisdom of humility. It’s not just so we can brag about our own projection of humbleness, as in Davis’ song, which turns out to be just as ridiculous in lyrics as it is in real life. Rather, true humility restores us to a right relationship with the Lord and Jesus Christ. We are His children, not His equals or master; we serve Him, not the other way around. When we forget that, we bring on our own destruction. But when we remember it and form ourselves accordingly, we prepare ourselves to eternal life with the Lord, in which we will all be exalted in the Trinitarian relationship — not because we have earned it, but because we have loved the Lord properly, which gives the Lord room in our hearts to love us fully.
We’re far from perfect in any way. When we recognize that, we can realize that it’s not hard at all to be humble and still do the best that we can.
The front page image is a portrait of Malachi by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1310, at the Siena Cathedral.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.