Our worth comes from God

  • January 18, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Jan. 30 (Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; Psalm 146; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12)

Most people would not view being poor as something desirable but a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. We do not see any particular virtue in having an empty bank account. But the poor — the anawim — are praised in the Old Testament for they are especially close to God and enjoy His favour.

In this context poverty has a far broader definition than mere lack of wealth. The anawim are cut off from the usual avenues of power in society, disenfranchised, and find themselves with only God as their defender and protector. Part of their isolation stems from their refusal to “play the game” by engaging in the cold and crafty machinations of the power struggles that surround them or the culture of lies and deceit that often accompanies it.

The anawim have a strong sense of right and wrong and they yearn for justice and righteousness. God is the only standard by which they measure themselves and their lives are spent in submission to the divine will. They do not count the cost nor do they trouble themselves with the judgments or condemnations of others. The prophet assures them that the future will belong to them and that the protective hand of the Lord will cover them. Their perseverance and surrender to God will not be in vain.

It is so easy to be seduced into meeting the world on its own terms and living according to human principles. Remaining faithful at times seems like an illusion or an exercise in futility. But the anawim — those who are not arrogant and self-seeking — are the remnant with which God rebuilds society. Despite what our culture may tell us, power, wealth and prestige are neither signs of God’s favour nor a measure of one’s worth.

Humility begins with honest self-knowledge and acceptance of who we are. Our true identity and worth come only from God — this is at the centre of Paul’s admonishment to the fractious Corinthian community. Many in the community are strutting about and flaunting their illusory new-found status. Some are quite proud of their spiritual endowments and use it to lord it over others or to inflate their egos, while others are probably ashamed of their simple and unimpressive backgrounds. Paul reminds all of them of their insignificant and humble human origins in order to give them a reality check. No one should be either proud or ashamed of their past or their origins. God deliberately chose unimpressive or insignificant people in order to make a forceful spiritual point — something God often does in the Bible. If we will allow it, God will do marvellous things with us and through us, but there is a catch. It is God’s show and God’s glory, not ours. And that is a price that some are not willing to pay.

The description of the one humble before God finds fuller expression in the Beatitudes. By blessing the “poor in spirit” — those who are not arrogant and self-seeking — Jesus lays out the entrance requirements for God’s Kingdom. We cannot force, manipulate or buy our way in. The meek — more properly understood as gentle or non-violent — express an essential aspect of this God-centred humility. In the long run, the world will belong to those like them for they are foundation for the world of the future. Exercising compassion and mercy, working for peace, hungering for justice and righteousness, and patient endurance of persecution and rejection are all marks of a man or woman in harmony with the divine pattern.

These are the qualities or principles that make good things happen, even against impossible odds, and those who practise them are the ones called children of God. There is a long and illustrious list of those who took these principles seriously: St. Francis, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.

Faith that is strictly interior and self-absorbed is not an expression of the Beatitudes but must be manifested outwardly for others as they were in Jesus Christ. It is said that the root sin is self, all other sins are just variations on this theme. If that is the case, then elsewhere in the Old Testament the prophet Micah (6:8) gives us the cure: Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God!