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November 5, 2017 - Proud of Our Humility?

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

Last Tuesday, the Church observed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian Monk, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the chapel at Wittenberg castle. Luther’s main issue in the 95 theses was indulgences. There are very few events that divided humanity in the way the Reformation did. It is not my intention to criticize Martin Luther, to discuss indulgences, or to judge 16th Century Church leaders. Historians tells us, though, that the schism caused by the Reformation could have been avoided. Depending on which side of history the Catholics and Protestants find themselves, they look at the Reformation very differently. Yet Catholics admit that perhaps that the Popes of the time, Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X, misread the signs of the time. As Renaissance Popes, they were more interested in art, music, and architecture rather than paying serious attention to the needs of their flock. The rest is history. 

In many ways, the readings for this weekend are the most appropriate for the anniversary. Both the first reading and the gospel reading are critical of the religious leaders of its time. In the first reading, why doesMalachi prophesy against the priests and rulers? The people of Israel had just returned from the Babylonian exile. The exile was interpreted by all the prophets to be the consequence of the infidelity of Israels religious and political leaders. Those who cared about the nation after their return were keen that Israel learn from its mistakes. The possibility of Israel returning to its old ways was real as the exile itself. Unfortunately, this possibility eventually become a reality. In today’s reading, Malachi is critical of the priests who colluded with the rich and powerful of his time. The Covenant asked for unblemished animals. The priests in order to curry favor with the rich and powerful, accepted defective animals for sacrifice. In this way, they dishonored the Lord and the Covenant. 

What Malachi said in today’s first reading, Jesus repeats in the gospel reading. He gets very critical of the Pharisees because they preach but do not practice and all their works are performed to be seen by others. “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’"  Then Jesus gives the most challenging teaching of all: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

I am a priest and I find myself as pastor of two parishes. What implications do these readings have for me?  

  1. The Gospel is the Standard. I have been a priest now for twenty-three years. I was ordained a priest during the papacy of John Paul II. During my seminary years, I steeped myself in the study of scripture, of philosophy and theology. I was a Redemptorist missioner then, and the charism of the Redemptorists Congregation was to preach the gospel to the most abandoned. We were also taught that there will be times in which the gospel is harder to preach. It is easy to compromise the gospel message and dilute it to be popular or to avoid criticism. And, I confess there are times I have fallen into that trap. However, if there is one thing that I have learnt over the last twenty-three years, it is this - that the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ must be the standard by which I judge myself. To love like he loved, to stand uncompromisingly by the poor, the vulnerable, and the weak like Jesus did, to welcome those that are rejected, to be compassionate and merciful like Jesus was, to reject the trappings of power and wealth like Jesus did, to stand unflinchingly with what is right like he did - that is the test of my priesthood. I know I have failed many times. But I also know what the standard that I must return to when I fail. Perhaps, this a standard that each one of us must put ourselves to. 
  1. Priesthood a Call to Serve. Like every other calling in life, priesthood too has its own unique challenges. For one, a priest is “ON” 24x7. There are other challenges - we act as counsellors, spiritual directors, confessors, worship leaders, teachers, administrators, pastors, mediators, healers, and many other roles, all at the same time. We are with people at the beginning of life and accompany people through their journey of life - from baptism to marriage to anniversaries. We are there when people fall ill, reach old age and approach the end of their lives. We are there at the moment of death and finally commit people to their graves. We do all this realizing that we are ourselves human, weak, limited in our abilities, and prone to same sins you are. For most part we live away from our families and sometimes feel very alone. But we discover a blessedness in all of this. Forbes magazine once had an article on the ten happiest jobs in the country. On the top of the list were priests. The reason - less worldliness and a life dedicated to the service of others. By the way, the second happiest people were fire-fighters. The second thing I have learnt over the last twenty-three years is this - never tire giving myself. I must never forget that the greatest mission of all, as Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, is to be the servant of all. I am not there yet, but, as I learnt from Msgr. Nicholas Schneider - at the end of my life, I must find myself well spent in service of Christ and people. 
  1. Humility is the Key. The end of the gospel reading is the key to a Christian living, whether you are a priest or not. Jesus says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Here is the thing about humility, though. The moment we think we are humble, that is precisely the moment that we stopped being humble. Humility is the hardest test of the gospel. The hardest thing for me to admit is that I am not humble. I really am not. I think of myself as loving, compassionate, kind, and giving. But humble…, I am working on it. I will let you know when I get there. If you want to know if you are humble here is a good test. Look at the crucifix. If your heart  and mine is like that man on the cross, then we are indeed are humble. Till then… lets keep working at it.     

May this Eucharist teach us to humble ourselves like Jesus.  

- Fr. Satish Joseph