Theological Pride (homily)
October 24, 2004
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18;
I think one of our greatest sins is the sin of spiritual pride. Theological pride. We’re all guilty of it. It’s the sin of the Pharisee in the gospel today: to think that our own religious views are the right ones and that we can then judge other people.
I have a student who lives in a house that is predominantly Christian. All the people of other faiths have left, she said, forced out under the pressure to convert. The Christians were always after them: we have the truth, be like us.
Barb and I have been getting pamphlets, mailed to us, at home, telling us in no uncertain terms how we’re supposed to vote if we want to be good Catholics: this candidate, that measure. These pamphlets aren’t from the bishops--they’re not authorized by the Vatican--which is ironic, of course. Under the guise of saying we have to obey the Church, these people are failing to obey, since the Bishops don’t tell us who to vote for, only that we have to ask the right questions. Not these people. They know the truth and they’re not afraid to tell me what it is, even though I didn’t ask them. They’re not afraid to judge me.
Or this happened at a communion service the other day, in the temple itself, just like in the Gospel. During the Prayers of the Faithful someone prayed for the institution of marriage. Lord hear our prayer. Then someone else prayed for all committed relationships, regardless of gender. Lord hear our prayer--though there was a little tension now. And then someone else prayed, in a pretty sharp tone, clearly as a comment on the previous prayer, that everyone in the Church really understand the absolute truth of the sacraments and not sin against them, and I said wait, hold the phone, that’s not right. We were being Pharisees. We were assuming that each of us knew the truth and that even in church we could hammer someone else over the head with it, as if the eucharist had become a presidential debate. But that’s the travesty, that’s the sin, because through the eucharist Jesus is always giving himself away, sacrificing himself in all humility. The eucharist is a radically nonviolent act. It’s radically countercultural. It’s about giving up power, not using it, and we’re supposed to do the same. We’re supposed to get deeper than all these superficial differences, down to the level of silence and gratitude, to the awareness of the presence of God, who is greater than any word or policy, including our own.
The tax collector is the orthodox theologian, because he knows that nothing is under his control. He doesn’t have the truth, the Truth has him. He doesn’t have black and white answers, only his love and his longing. As Chesterton says, the only difference between a saint and a sinner is that the saint knows he’s a sinner. The tax collector is a saint. The tax collector knows how helpless he is without the grace of God, and the effect of that is to shut him up, to bring him to his knees and then out into the streets. He’s too busy then helping other people to judge them--too busy acting to talk.
Sirach tells us today that the Lord is a God of justice who “knows no favorites.” Paul says in Timothy that only the Lord can judge his efforts on earth, only the Lord is “a just judge,” and he won’t just reward the cool guys like the apostles, those with the right positions and connections. No, the prize will be given “not only to me,” Paul says, but to all who have “longed” for God, and in fact, Paul is even careful to ask forgiveness for those who opposed him and threw him into prison. “May it not be held against them!” Where does this strength and compassion come from? From Paul’s awareness that he is not in charge, from his awareness that he is not responsible for the good things in his life: it’s the Lord who “stood by me and gave me strength,” he knows. All is gift!
Why is the Lord “close to the brokenhearted,” as the Psalm today says? Why is he close to those who are “crushed in spirit”? Because when we are empty, we can be filled. When life has taken away all our pretensions and our claims to power and authority, nothing stands in the way of the truth, nothing stands in the way of God.
Any Christian who pressures someone else to convert isn’t crushed enough. Any Christian who sends unauthorized pamphlets to my house isn’t crushed enough. Any Christian who uses the Prayers of the Faithful to advance a political agenda isn’t crushed enough.
But let me flip this around, let me try to put this in a more positive way, because I think that what the tax collector feels finally is joy. I think in the end that he is terrifically happy, because finally it’s a good thing that we’re not in charge of the universe. It’s a whole lot better that way.
The other day a colleague of mine came to my office to talk. Just to talk. And it was one of those brief, friendly conversations that leave you feeling better and more positive the rest of the day. It was just a kindness, and it lifted me up.
Or another day an old student, from last year, came by to see me and brought me a quince, a kind of fruit that grows from a tree we have on campus, a cross between an apple and a pear. This is kind person, too, and gentle, and nice, and he didn’t want anything really--well, he did, he wants a letter of recommendation--but there was something really sweet about him coming and about the conversation we had. He gave me a quince! It was the best thing that happened to me that day, and I hadn’t planned on it. I couldn’t have. There wasn’t a note on my calendar: wait for a quince, feel joy. No. Like the visit of my colleague, like all the best things and beautiful things and good things, the quince and the student were gifts, unearned, and maybe because I was feeling a little down both days I was more open to those gifts than I would have been otherwise. I was feeling just a little crushed, just a little downhearted, and that was good really, that was grace, because I was ready then and open to the kindness. I could receive it.
My dog wagging her tail. The moon through the clouds. A note. A laugh. If we are humble enough, if we confess our dependence and our need, these things will exalt us. We don’t make them happen, we don’t create them, but they are pouring down on us all the time, they are bubbling up in everything we do, pure gift, pure love, pure beauty. All we have to do is receive them. All we have to do is acknowledge their source.
And then we are exalted, then we are filled, then we are silenced.