Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C
When I was a junior in high school on the football team, my coach decided to move me from wide receiver to the offensive line. And I wasn’t any bigger back then than I am now, so it became my task to try and block guys who were usually more than 50 pounds heavier than I was. But in football, weight is not always as important as leverage. Our coach always told us, “Stay low and keep your feet.” My one advantage happened to be that I was usually lower to the ground than the defensive linemen. Now I never became an All-American lineman, but by staying low I was able to hold my own and not get injured, and I’ll always remember that advice: “Stay low, and keep your feet.” Another saying that our coaches would repeat was, “The low man wins,” and this seems to echo what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today: “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Football coaches understand on a natural level the importance and value of this distinctively Christian virtue that is so often misunderstood. They understand how important it is to be grounded, to stay low and keep your feet, and that this lowliness is never meant to make us shrink back in fear, but provides the grounding we need to move forward.
Too often when we think of being humble, we might associate it with some kind of self-hatred, or never thinking of oneself, or even a denial of the gifts and talents that we have from almighty God. Humility has been called the foundation of all the virtues, but too often people think they’re being humble when they’re really just being cowards. The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or ground, and humility is what keeps us grounded in reality, grounded in the truth of who we are in relation to God and to our neighbors. Humility keeps us from pride, from illusions of grandeur and the endless pursuit of power, domination, and self-importance. But humility also keeps us from selling ourselves short and helps us recognize the gifts we have from God, the gifts we’re called to use to serve Him and our neighbor. Humility keeps us on the solid ground we need to move forward, to strive always towards the high calling and dignity that is ours in Christ. This is what my coaches understood about humility, that being grounded, having a firm foundation underneath us, staying low and keeping your feet, is the best way to gain the leverage to not only hold your ground but to move forward in spite of opposition, and this aspect of humility is illustrated nicely in our readings today.
In our second reading, St. Paul is definitely not selling himself short. In fact, he might even sound like he’s boasting, more like the self-righteous Pharisee from the Gospel rather than the humble tax collector. He tells Timothy, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.” This might almost sound arrogant, but we should also notice how Paul is different from the Pharisee in the Gospel. While the Pharisee distances himself from “the rest of humanity” and from the tax collector—“greedy, dishonest, adulterous” people, as he characterizes them—St. Paul confesses instead that not only will he receive a crown from the Lord, but so will “all who have longed for his appearance.” St. Paul goes on to talk about his lowliness, and being deserted by all when he appeared in court, but he was grounded in the reality of God’s presence and protection during his trial, and this humility and trust in God gave him the strength to go forward in confidence, and persevere in preaching the Gospel in the face of powerful opposition, even ultimately to the point of laying down his life in witness to Christ.
The tax collector, on the other hand, as Jesus describes him in the Gospel might not at first seem very strong. He “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Isn’t this just the self-hatred I warned about earlier? Isn’t he shrinking back in fear? No. If we remember the culture of his day, it becomes clear that this humble tax collector is actually very bold. Tax collectors were viewed at that time as being traitors to the Jewish nation and collaborators with their Roman oppressors. They were seen as public sinners and enemies of the freedom of the Jews. That’s why out of everyone else at the Temple, the Pharisee singles out the tax collector. And Jesus is criticized throughout the Gospel for dining with tax collectors. Good Jews should not even associate with them. By coming to the Temple area to pray, the tax collector exposes himself to the scorn and contempt of the Pharisee and of everyone else there who thought that tax collectors had no business praying at all and no hope of being heard by God. But the tax collector is grounded in the truth of the mercy of God. He acknowledges himself to be a sinner, he stays low, but he keeps his feet and does not despair. He throws himself upon the mercy of God, and he allows God to forgive, to justify him, to transform him and give him new life. His humility and trust in God give him the strength to step out, to pray to God in the face of public opposition and scorn.
Our first reading describes the strength of his prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” As we approach Christ present in this Eucharist, we ask God for His humility, to pray with perseverance, to imitate the boldness of the tax collector and of St. Paul, to be steadfast in preaching the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture and society more and more opposed to the Catholic faith. In our own journey of faith, we need to stay low, and keep our feet.