NOT FOR THE WISE AND THE LEARNED, BUT FOR MERE CHILDREN

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 6, 2008

Readings: Zec 9:9-10 / Rom 8:9,11-13 / Mt 11:25-30

There is something absolutely disarming about children. We all love to have them around and we find endless joy in their presence. Being simple, unsophisticated, open, easy to please, children are always the center of attention at any gathering. How they amuse and entertain us! We may have so many reasons for loving children, but I am sure there is one reason that is shared by all of us. It is because they are truthfully candid. They mean what they say. They say exactly what they mean. They have no reason to resort to double-talk, to subterfuge, to deception. How very true are the words of the psalmist: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger.(Psalm 8:3)

There is power in simplicity. There is an undefinable force attached to being what the world may consider weak, powerless and poor. In the first reading of today, Zephaniah envisions the awaited savior as “meek, riding on an ass.” It is most interesting to note that this same savior, riding on a lowly beast of burden, would put to rout chariots and horses and mighty bows, and shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion, adds the prophet, shall stretch from sea to shining sea.

The images conjured up by the first reading would make any boy’s, or any child’s adrenaline to shoot up in utter excitement. This is a classical battle picture of inferior forces battling it out with superior forces possessing the latest weaponry, as against a ragtag band of freedom fighters with nothing but light, and inferior hand weapons. This is much like the story of the weak, frail and nerdy looking Peter Parker, to all appearances the underdog in an epic struggle between good and evil forces, in the highly popular, box-office hit movie SPIDERMAN. The story of the underdog, the less powerful finally turning the tables against the mighty ones is a favorite theme since time immemorial.

But this is not just one more of those stories about “unexpected” heroes and heroines who win despite their obvious lack of means and lack of power. This is not a story of such a hero getting superhuman – if, magical – powers that he then puts at the service of the helpless and the downtrodden.

This is the story about God and his love of preference. This is a story of God’s predilection for the poor, the helpless, the less powerful, the simple. For this is a story of God’s love – a history that shows repeatedly in Scriptures, his preference for the weak. This is very clear in Paul’s statement: “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1COR 1:27).
This seems to be at work, too, in today’s Gospel passage where we hear the Lord saying:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” (Mt 11:25).

There seems to be no doubt as to where the Lord is calling us today. He calls us to simplicity. He reminds us that greatness does not lie on power, wealth, and authority. He leads us to what really matters. And what really counts as essential does not have to do with all three enumerated above. Just how are we faring in this regard?

Henry David Thoreau, in his extended essay Walden Pond, partly echoes what the Lord tells us today. Thoreau makes much of modern man’s tendency to fritter away his life on details…oodles of them. He went to the woods, he says, because he wanted to live life deliberately, to face the essentials, in order to “suck the marrow” out of life, as it were. His basic dictum: simplify, simplify, simplify. What does this say of us who are so concerned about so many things: career, reputation, job, dwellings, entertainment, promotion, success, more money, more leisure. The list is endless. Our lives now are a mad rush from one pressing concern to another. Our lives are literally torn apart by so many conflicting needs. What does this say about so many of us, who, after acquiring so much knowledge, have forgotten that wisdom is something that has to do more with heart than with mind; that it has to do less with skills and know-how than with attitudes. Attitudes of the heart…these are what really matter. Philosophy would rather call these attitudes virtues. Sometime in my philosophical training, we were told that there were basically two types of virtues: intellectual and moral virtues…habits of the mind, and habits of the heart (and hand). Habits also were either entitative or operative. Simply put, the latter habit of the heart has to do with daily life, with “operations.” It has to do with action, with doing, with behavior.

I suggest that, following today’s invitation from the Lord, we take the path of that one important habit of the heart called simplicity and ordinariness as our PAN DE LA SEMANA - our bread for the week. This simplicity and ordinariness springs from the important realization that deep inside, we are really insignificant creatures. This habit of the heart refers to the attitude of appreciating our true self, minus all the trimmings and the trappings that we use as props to our basically insecure self. This has to do with facing our self as God meant it to be, with all its richness of being and not of having. There is something painfully true in Margaret Mitchell’s statement that it is only when we lose our reputation that we become truly free (Gone with the Wind).

There is something humbling in what I am living through right now. From my ordination back in ’82, I have always been more or less in control. I held various offices. I worked for others all the time. I was called by various titles. I was sought after at meetings and gatherings. What a change it had been when both titles and offices disappeared! From caring for others, all of a sudden, I only had to care for myself, to go through some kind of fallow time – my own Walden Pond experience! This is not only humbling, but also liberating; not just liberating, but also enriching. The luxury to reflect, and become a little more wise for the reflection is something that cannot come to those who think they already know; those whose worth resides on what they do, how much they have; those who are too busy to really realize they are missing it all; those whose heads have been swollen by power, wealth, and a little authority. There is a word for all this: PRIDE. And the Bible tells us it was the cause of Lucifer’s downfall. Shakespeare declared in one of his plays: “Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, does such fantastic tricks before high heavens, as make the angels weep!”

I guess this, among other things, tells us that people who use authority and power and wealth and whatever, as props to their self-worth really do not know who they truly are. And so they resort to things external to them. But they really hold on to straw, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Simplicity and ordinariness are not their kind of game. Theirs is a game of one-upmanship, and before they realize it, they are using even other people as stepping stones toward more – more honor, more fame, more glory, more “success.” But the proud – the wise, and the learned – are failing miserably. Draw from your own personal experience. When you did something out of spite, when you did something to put down another, to prove your point and take some form of revenge over others, are you really happy? Only the mentally sick are! Kahlil Gibran’s words ring loud and clear to me at this point: “How vain it is to build a wall on one side, by destroying a fence on the other side!”

The first reading from Zephaniah makes a curious link between the promised savior riding on an ass who will “banish chariots, horses and bows,” and the proclamation that he has come to bring. Yes, “he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” This is a link too precious to overlook. From a stance of simplicity, lowliness and humility, one gets power – the power to proclaim peace. What then do we make of this? Simple! Only the simple, the lowly, the poor, the weak, the less powerful, and less learned from this world’s viewpoint, shall know peace. The Lord chooses to reveal to them what He withholds from the wise and the learned. Wisdom is in no hurry to enter the minds and hearts of those who are too busy filling them up with trifles and non-essentials.

Nowhere is this mad rush for non-essentials so clear as in the lopsided concern people put now on their bodies and physical appearances. The care for the body has almost become a cult for millions and millions all over the world. Is this any clue as to why Avon has shifted most of its manufacturing and capital to the Philippines? Is this any clue as to why cosmetics in the Philippines is and has always been a very lucrative business, next to food? St. Paul in the second reading tells us to set our priorities right: “we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Among other things, St. Paul reminds us to care for the essentials, to worry above everything else about our life in the spirit, and not life in the flesh. This is another way of talking about simplicity and ordinariness.

For all of us harried and hurried worrywarts and worldly competitors in the game of hiding our true selves, who find it hard to “resort to means otherwise available only to weaker parties” (Gaudium et Spes), for all of us who think that greatness resides in might, in power and position, and therefore feel so burdened by the compelling need to keep up with a culture that prizes all of the above, there is a standing invitation from the Lord: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

There is peace and serenity awaiting us all. And it is not to be had by those who do not know nor accept their true selves; those who because they are wise and learned, already have all the answers. No, this type of peace and “rest” that the Lord speaks about is not for the wise and the learned, who do not ask, but for mere children who acknowledge their need and are honest and open with their want.


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