A: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Humility Takes the Poison Out

November 3, 2002

Matthew 23:1-12

Those that humble themselves will be exalted.  What a peculiar statement by Jesus!  How can we understand it?  How can we exalt ourselves by being humbled?

Perhaps the place to start is with the understanding of the word “humble.”  The English word humble comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or dirt.  The humble person, therefore, is the person who knows the stuff of which he or she is made.  Remember that in the book of Genesis God creates the human person out of the dirt of the earth.  So the humble person is the honest person, the person who can admit the common clay, the imperfect stuff out of which all of us are made.  The humble person is the honest person, the person who can admit failings, shortcomings, and sins.  That person knows that he or she is not perfect and there is no impulse to pretend differently.

Now Jesus’ criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees in the gospel is an invitation to this kind of humility.  The Scribes and Pharisees were no more hypocritical or proud than any other group of people in any time of history.  Their role in the story is to stand in for us.  Their faults and shortcomings are meant to represent our shortcomings and faults.  Their hypocrisy, insensitivity, and love of honor are a reminder to us of how often we are hypocritical and insensitive and addicted to the respect of others.  In light of those shortcomings in us, Jesus invites us to humility, invites us to honesty, invites us to recognize the flaws of our life.  Jesus promises us that, if we can own the imperfect clay out of which we are made, we can release both goodness and power.

There is a story among the American Indians of a twelve-year old boy who was bitten by a poisonous snake and died.  His grieving parents carried the boy to the holy man in the village.  The parents and the holy man sat around the dead boy for hours in silence.  Finally the father got up and he placed his hands on the feet of his son.  He said, “In all my life, I have not been as attentive to my family as I needed to be.” With those words, the poison left the boy’s feet.  The mother then got up and placed her hands on the boy’s heart.  She said, “In all my life, I have not loved my family as deeply as they needed me to love them.”  The poison left the boy’s heart.  Then the holy man got up and placed his hands on the boy’s head.  He said, “In all my life, I have not truly believed the words that I have preached to others.”  The poison left the boy’s head and he sat up alive again.

This story proclaims the truth that admitting who we are has the power to heal.  Admitting our own faults and shortcomings can bring something that is dead back to life.  That is why Jesus calls us to humility and honesty; why he says that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  Because in humbling ourselves with the truth of our own imperfections, we release power and life into our world.

How contrary this truth is to the beliefs and practice of our society.  Politicians from the President on down are always spinning, trying to make us believe that they make no mistakes and that they have nothing to hide.  Executives in business spend millions of dollars settling lawsuits so that matters can be resolved without admitting any liability or recognizing that any harm has been done.  The Bishops of our church, even though they acted quickly to protect our children when the scandal broke about sexual abuse, were rather slow in admitting their own responsibility.  There are still but a handful of bishops willing to say, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for the mess and the harm that was done.”  So if leaders in government, in business, and in our church are reluctant to admit that they have made mistakes, does it not make it more difficult for us to admit the humble honest truth about ourselves.  What our society seeks to do with our imperfections is hide them and deny them.

Against all of this influence, Jesus calls us to be honest, to be humble, to admit the truth about ourselves and our own imperfections.  He assures us that such humility will not harm us, but rather deepen our life.

What power there could be in marriages and in friendships if we could more easily say, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry that I hurt you.  I’m sorry that I did not meet your expectations or needs.”  How much easier it could be to forgive someone, to heal a broken relationship, if we could say, “I am not perfect.  I too am a sinner.  I have in my own way contributed to the estrangement that exists between us.”  How much more freedom could we have if we could admit our shortcomings and work to correct them; but at the same time continue to believe that people love us not because we are perfect, but because we can be genuine and honest in admitting our faults and our need to grow.

We do have value.  But our value comes from the fact that God has made us and loves us.  Not from the illusion that we are without fault.  This is why we can be honest, why we can humbly admit that we are not perfect.  This is why those who are humbled can be exalted.  Because admitting the truth about ourselves releases power, the power to take the poison out, the power to bring something that was dead back to life.

When Heroes Fail

October 30, 2005

Matthew 23:1-12

Do you remember the first time a hero failed you? Do you remember the first time that someone you looked up to, someone you tried to imitate, someone who inspired you, let you down? It probably happened when you were young, because the young make heroes easily. Perhaps it was a baseball player or a Hollywood actress or a teacher. Perhaps it was even someone in your own family.  Someone you looked up to did something or promoted some value that you knew you would never want to imitate.

Our world changes when heroes fall.  It becomes more negative, less hopeful. This is why as we grow older, as we learn more things, heroes are harder to find.  With every new corporate scandal, with every new investigation in Washington, with every new revelation of abuse and mismanagement in the church, there are less people for us to imitate. We resign ourselves to live in a world without heroes, to live in a world where people no longer inspire us.

Jesus recognizes this problem in today’s gospel. He criticizes the religious leaders who should have been role models for the people and warns his disciples not to follow their example. What underlies Jesus’ warning is the human truth that we are all contagious to one another. We influence others either for good or for ill. None of us lives an isolated life. We require good influence from those around us.

So how do you live in a world where heroes fail? By reminding yourself that there are some heroes that do not fail. For all the people who prove themselves unworthy of our imitation, there are still some people who inspire us. It is important for us to identify who those people are and follow their example. How do we identify them?  Jesus tells us what to look for.  He says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Real heroes are servants. Real heroes serve others with integrity, generosity, wisdom, and love. We all have some of these heroes in our lives. A hero could be a grandmother or a neighbor, a friend or a cousin. A hero could be somebody at work or somebody we have met in this community. We could admire someone in government, someone in the church.

The truth is you do not need many heroes in your life. One or two will do. One or two real heroes have the ability to offset the disillusionment that comes when so many others let us down. But we should identify the people who are our heroes, be grateful for them, and follow their example. We should never forget that we too are contagious, contagious for either good or ill. Therefore we are called to follow the example of our heroes and love and serve with as much integrity and wisdom and generosity as we can.

As we try to live in this way, we should place the results of our efforts in God’s hands. We cannot predetermine which people will be positively influenced by our actions. We are not equally contagious to everyone. Some of the people that we would most like to serve, will remain curiously unaffected by our action. Other people will surprise us with how receptive they are and how quickly they follow our example.

How do you live in a world where heroes fail? You remember those who succeed. Let us then today, remember those people in our life, who by their service and example have made us better people. Let us always be thankful for them. Let us also follow their example so that, as we ourselves serve others, there will be at least some people who will find something worth imitating in us.


The Power of Lifting a Finger

October 30, 2011

Matthew 23:1-12

Today’s gospel is not about the Pharisees. It is about us. However we imagine Jesus’ relationship to the Pharisees during his earthly ministry, his words of criticism in today’s gospel have been recorded not to criticize them but to warn us—to direct us to avoid those things which would prove shameful in God’s sight. So how might we discover what Jesus is warning us about?

I would like to focus on one line, actually one word, the word “finger”. In making his criticism Jesus says that people are carrying heavy burdens and you are unwilling to lift even a finger to move them. What is the impact of the expression: “unwilling to lift a finger”?  It is a small movement. In fact, with the possible exception of the blink of the eye, it is the smallest move that a body can make. Yet, Jesus is saying how shameful would it be if people around us are burdened and we are unwilling to lift a finger to help them, unwilling to make even the smallest move in their favor.

Now of course, one could pose a response to Jesus’ criticism. If moving a finger is such a small, tiny effort then what difference does it make if you move it or not? If we are asked simply to move a finger, then what difference can either doing it or not doing it make? Here is where the word finger can help us.

Finger is a translation of a Greek word, δάκτυλος. It is a rare word in the New Testament. It only occurs one time in Matthew’s gospel in the passage that we just heard about lifting your finger to help another. But it occurs also in Luke and in John. I am suggesting that if we look where the word finger occurs in these two gospels, it will throw light on Jesus’ meaning in today’s gospel. It will actually show us how lifting a finger can help others and help ourselves as well.

In the Gospel of Luke, δάκτυλος occurs when Jesus is addressing the crowd. He says, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Here the word, finger, is not our finger or even Jesus’ finger, it is God’s finger. Reading this passage about God’s finger together with the passage in today’s gospel about our finger reminds us that God is capable and willing of acting through our actions. If this is the case, then even a small action on our part could be significant. If when we move our finger, God is moving God’s finger through us, then we can make a real difference in the life of people, even if our movement is rather small.

The word, δάκτυλος, also occurs in John’s gospel. Jesus uses it as he addresses Thomas. He says, “Take your finger and place it in the nail mark of my hands and do not doubt but believe.” Here the word, finger, is a means of faith. When we connect this use to today’s gospel, it seems to be saying that if we move our finger to help another, we will be drawing closer to Christ because in touching another we are touching Christ, himself.

Even though moving a finger is a very small action, it should not be one that is discounted. When we act in even a small way for another person, God can act through us. Therefore our action can have tremendous consequences. It can also deepen and increase our own faith.

It might seem like a very small action to pick up the phone and make contact with someone who has just lost a loved one in death. It is only a few minutes of your time. Yet if God is with you in that call, your action of lifting a finger can lift the grief of someone who is sorrowing. It might seem like a small decision to begin counseling when your marriage is in danger. It may seem too small to make a difference. But if God’s grace is with you, then that small effort could turn the situation around and save your family. It might seem insignificant when you stop and have a thirty-second conversation with the kid in school whom everyone else mocks. Yet, you might discover that by choosing that small action you find yourself closer to Christ and more clearly his disciple.

Lifting a finger is a small action that could easily be discounted. In the gospel today, Jesus warns us not to dismiss it.  For when we lift a finger to help another person it is possible that God is moving God’s own finger thorough us. If so, then our action will help build the Kingdom of God. And that small action may not only help someone else. When we use our finger to touch the pain of another person, we should have no doubt that our own faith will be deepened, because we will be touching the wounds of the risen Christ. 


Burdens We May Not See

November 5, 2017

Matthew 23: 1-12

Brittany Darras teaches English at a high school in Colorado. At a teacher-parents conference, a parent came up to her to explain her daughter’s long absence from class. Ms. Darras was not prepared for what she heard. The parent explained that her daughter had tried to commit suicide. The police had thwarted her efforts, and she was now recovering in a nearby hospital. Ms. Darras was shocked. The girl in question was an intelligent, friendly, beautiful young woman. No one had any idea that something was wrong. Ms. Darras decided to write to the girl. She sent a handwritten note affirming how much she admired her academic excellence, her personality, and the many friends that were a part of her life. She said that she and the class missed her deeply and waited for her return. Ms. Darras’ letter became a turning point in this young girl’s recovery. She told her mother, “I can’t believe that someone said so many nice things about me. I always imagined that no one would remember anything, if I was gone.”

The letter also became an epiphany for Ms. Darras. She began to think how many more students in her tenth and eleventh grade classes were carrying a similar sadness. Of course, there was no way of knowing. So Ms. Darras decided she would write to all of them. Over the next few months, she hand-wrote 130 letters telling each student the goodness she saw in him or her. Now, of course, finding goodness in some students was easier than in others. But she found something of genuine value in each one of the students and expressed it. Some of the students never responded to her letters. But many did, expressing their thankfulness. A few students told her that they would keep the letter she sent forever. When she was asked how she could write so many letters, Ms. Darras responded, “Once I realized the difference that even a simple act of affirmation could make, I found plenty of time to write.”

There are people around us carrying heavy burdens. Some of them we see, and some of them we do not. But the message of Jesus in today’s gospel is that we are called to ease the burdens of others. The criticism that Jesus directs to the Pharisees is actually addressed to us, because there are times when we do not even lift a finger to ease the burden that someone is carrying. Now, of course, there are some burdens we cannot budge. We cannot heal a person of cancer. We probably do not have the resources to make whole someone who is experiencing financial collapse. But, there are simple things, easy things, we can do. And they can make a difference. As the experience of Ms. Darras shows us, such things can be as simple as an act of affirmation.

What does it cost us to tell another person the goodness we see in him or her? It is our failure to do that simple action that Jesus criticizes in today’s gospel. He asks, ‘When was the last time you told your son or daughter how good she or he is at a particular task or ability? When was the last time you told your spouse why you love him or her? If it has been awhile, what are you waiting for? Is there someone at work for whom you are thankful? Why not let them know it. Do you have friends who are true blessings for you? Why not tell them what they mean to you.

Now, of course, when we give affirmation, some people will take our comments in stride, thank us, and move on. But, others may be hungering to be reminded of the goodness that is theirs. They may be carrying burdens we are unable to see. That is why Jesus asks us to love freely and to affirm others generously. Because, being his disciple is not only a matter of doing difficult things—like changing a person’s heart or moving a mountain. Sometimes doing his will is simple—as easy as lifting a finger.

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