God makes us whole and wise

  • August 28, 2007
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Sept. 2 (Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29; Psalm 68; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

Twelve-step programs have freed countless people from addictions and restored them to health and sanity. The first three steps are the hardest, and they are the downfall of not a few. The sufferer must admit that his or her life is out of control and that they are not God after all.

God is the higher power who can save and restore the individual, and it is to this power that one must surrender unconditionally. Without this, the rest of the steps are impossible.

Sirach would agree wholeheartedly. Many think themselves wise, but only those who have humbled themselves before God stand a chance of actually being so. Wisdom is not knowledge, power, skill, talent or any of those things that we prize so highly. A wise person is merely one who is skilled at living a just, compassionate and spiritual life and at navigating life’s obstacles with grace and dignity. A wise person does not have all the answers nor is he or she in possession of absolute truth. They do not follow custom, tradition, common opinion or authority slavishly.

These aspiring sages ask questions; they challenge; they seek incessantly. Humility is not self-abasement or the inability to appreciate one’s own gifts. It is the ability and willingness to say what is difficult for many people: “I don’t know” or “You may be right.” Perhaps Sirach’s version of the Twelve Steps could heal humanity of its terrible addiction to being right or imposing one’s will on others. We are not God, not even close, nor do we know a fraction of what we think we do. Only God can make us whole and wise, but only we can allow it to happen.

The God described in the first part of the reading from Hebrews is terrifying. One might be understandably reluctant to have a personal relationship with this sort of God. Don’t touch, don’t look, don’t listen and keep your distance seems to be the order of the day.

There is no denying that an encounter with the transcendent and infinite reality that is God could be awesome and frightening for a mere mortal being. But the author of Hebrews assures us that Jesus has enabled us to experience God in a new way — one that we can handle. God does not want fear and terror to define the divine-human relationship. But there is a catch: the way to this heavenly assembly of angels, mortals and God is the same path travelled by Jesus. It consists of love, humility, service to others and doing God’s will, and there are no shortcuts.

Jockeying for position is nothing new. This parable is not really about Pharisees or banquets. It is a metaphor for human behaviour of every sort. People are rarely satisfied with themselves as they are. In their fear and insecurity, they constantly compare themselves to others and are the losers in their own eyes.

Life becomes a frantic struggle for “honour” — validation of one’s worth. But the trouble is that there is never enough honour to satisfy; it’s like pouring water into the sand. Not only that, the “honour” is usually at someone else’s expense. Pushing oneself ahead of others is a set-up for a fall, for the competition is fierce and ruthless.

Television reality shows are a case in point: in a fine demonstration of our competitive culture, each week the contestants “get ahead” by throwing one of their own off the show. Business, academics, sports and even religion can become means of acquiring honour and leaving others in the dust.

Jesus has another way, and again humility is centre stage. The key is to be at peace with who you are and opt out of the prestige and honour race. Scrabbling after human honour feeds the ego but not the soul. True honour comes from within and reflects integrity, honesty, compassion and justice, none of which requires a noisy and pushy promoter.

Being at peace with oneself and with God is liberating and affirming, requiring no further honour. It has been said that we are what we are before God and nothing more. That is both humbling and exhilarating, for it deflates many human pretensions but hints at a validation of worth far beyond what we can imagine.