Spirituality of the Readings

Humble Contradictions

Jesus devises a puzzle for us this Sunday. And then he makes a remark that contradicts itself.

Do I have your attention?

First the puzzle. “Call no one on earth your father,” he says. “You have but one Father in heaven” (Gospel). What can this mean? “Father,” or its equivalent, is one of the most widely used names in the world! We say it in many ways to our dad (father, daddy, pa, pop, papa, and in Ireland da, etc.). Also, the normal address for a priest is “Father.” Some believe this name should not be used for a cleric, because of the Gospel passage we are examining.

Let’s look at it. “You have but one Father in heaven,” Jesus tells us. This is profoundly accurate. Next to God’s beautiful, tender parental love (Second Reading), you and I are just pale imitations of fathers or mothers or priests. We become competitors with God, I suppose.
But if we are not trying to compete with God for the name Father, we are trying to partake in it, to be vessels from which it is poured. Couldn’t we be called “father” because we humbly accept God’s own fatherhood and motherhood, which he wants to place around our shoulders like a cape? This would mean we are part of the Body of Christ, showing the world what the Father’s love looks like.

Why didn’t Jesus say it that way? Many answers exist, some of which you can read on other parts of this week’s website. But maybe he meant, “Let no man usurp the name of God and use it for himself, forgetting all about God’s part in it. Let God be the Father of your children, and let you be the eyes, ears and hands that God works through. This understanding would make Father’s Day and Mother’s day deeply meaningful times.

Second, the contradiction.

Jesus proclaims, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. But whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). What kind of sense does this make? If I am lowly, the result would seem to be, quite simply, that I am not exalted. The Gospel reverses this logic and thus presents an enigma.

Agreed, but allow me to use a simple metaphor. Suppose you have a water-glass filled to the top with hardened concrete. Are you able to pour water into it? No. Same thing for our souls. When they are hardened as with cement, nothing much else gets in.

If we perform our works in order to be exalted, if we crave places of honor, if we are very fond of being hailed “in the marketplace”—none of which are such bad or evil desires but still —as a result, our souls can harden like concrete so there is no room left for the cooling spring-water of God’s presence. Paradoxically, God “exalts” us by entering humbly into our deepest soul.

How does such an entrance feel? Look at Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm. It has only three lines total but its gentle tone describes what it is like to be exalted by God. One becomes “like a weaned child on its mother’s lap.”

Why not press this link or open your bible and take time with such a beautiful psalm.

The answer to the puzzle and the contradiction? Riches honor and pride sweep us off God’s lap. Weaned humility lets us be cozy, down where we belong.

John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson