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Sunday Readings for Aug. 29, 2010 (22C)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: Self-exaltation blocks the way to heaven. This Sunday Jesus offers us the key that opens the narrow gate.
Last Sunday Jesus told us that we can enter heaven only by the narrow gate. Today he offers us the key to that gate. You may not like the offer, but I will not keep you in suspense about it. In speaking about those who get a place at the wedding banquet, Jesus says simply and directly, "every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." We obtain a place a Jesus' banquet, we enter the narrow gate of salvation - by humility.
Humility is hard. Before speaking about what it is, let me state what it is not. Today we have a lot of misunderstandings about humility. Humility does not mean saying things about oneself that are not true. It does not require a pretty girl to say she is homely - or a university professor to pretend he is Homer Simpson. No, a humble person will have honest gratitude for gifts received. Because of that honest gratitude, a humble person never rests on his laurels. He resists laziness. He knows that he has received precious gifts and he will have to give an account of how he has used those gifts - so a humble person works diligently. A humble person is honest and hard working. And thirdly, true humility involves courage. A humble person recognizes his inner fears, but he seeks help in overcoming them.*
So, genuine humility has no place for dishonesty or laziness or cowardice. We can probably best understand humility by looking at its opposite: Self-exaltation. Jesus makes it clear self-exaltation excludes a person from the banquet. He is so puffed up with himself that he cannot fit through the narrow gate. Self-exaltation began when our first parents tried to make themselves into "little gods." From there self-exaltation led to murder, drunkenness, cruelty - our whole sad human history.
To show how self-exaltation blocks the way to heaven, I would like to focus on one aspect: the denial of sin. You see, each of us has a sense of right and wrong. When we do wrong we can either face up to it or deny we've done anything wrong. To face one's wrongdoing requires humility. But humility is hard, so we shift the blame or even deny sin.
This tendency goes way back. Ancient Babylon had a legendary queen named Semiramis who lived a very immoral life. To make her own wrongdoing seem okay, she decided to change her country's laws. She legalized all the worst forms of immorality.** I won't go into details because we have children as well as adults in our congregation. But as you can imagine, such a law had terrible results. We see something similar today. Many people feel guilty about certain behaviors, but instead of facing up to what they are doing, they want to change the definition of marriage.
Now, I am not bringing this up because I think many people in our congregation are tempted to that particular sin. If you do experience those attractions, it is no cause for shame. All of us have to deal with temptation. From my years hearing confession, I know that the strangest things come into people's minds - including my own. Each person here has their own particular demons, their own weaknesses. Temptations - even sins - will not keep us out of heaven. What will block the way is denial of sin. Like Queen Semiramis, we might try to write our own version of the moral law. The temptation kicks in especially when we want something very badly: "Well, I know that children and young people should avoid that kind of thing, but we are adults!" Or if you are a young person, "Those ideas are so old-fashioned. We see things differently today!"
No doubt many things are different today, but the question is: Has human nature changed? I see no evidence that it has. If self-exaltation ruined lives in the past, it will do so today. And even more serious, Jesus warns that self-exaltation will block the way to heaven. On the other hand, he offers us they key to heaven. Humility restores the soul - and rebuilds lives.
Humility is hard, but it is the key our relationship with God. As a priest I meet people who have left the Church. I ask they why they left. They may mention something a priest said to them, maybe decades ago. It hurt their feelings; it hurt their pride. I tell them I am sorry and ask them to forgive. It was terrible what happened, but now they need humility to come back to God.
Humility is not only the key to our relationship with God, but with each other. Once a woman told a priest that she was having a difficult time with her husband. "Father," she said, "I am trying to be a humble wife, like the Bible says, but the problem is I am always right - and he is always wrong." I ask: Who do we love more - the person who is right or the person who is humble? Sirach tells us, "My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts."
Yes, humility is hard: It requires honesty, diligent work and courage. But it brings the greatest rewards. Here and now, humility heals souls and heals relationships. But even more important, it makes possible a relationship with God. Humility opens the narrow gate to eternal life.
*************Humility also includes "forgiving oneself." While the phrase is nonsensical, it has become common and can be a way of encouraging us to have a good laugh about our own selves. I often brood about some dumb thing I did or said. How could I have been so stupid? The answer is obvious, but requires humility to face. Best to have a good laugh about that - but also make any amends to the person my foolish act may have hurt.