Spirituality of the Readings

Am I Worthy?

We are now well into the Galilean ministry of Jesus, the one he began in the Nazareth synagogue.

This Sunday contains a surprise development. The Fifth Sunday finds three of the greatest witnesses in the Bible—Isaiah, Paul and Peter—expressing their own worthlessness.

What is your attitude toward worthiness? Do you agree with today’s psychologized sentiment that, “I am worthy,” or “I’m ok, you’re ok,” or “I buy this product because I’m worth it”?

Let’s look at these three witnesses and see about their worthiness. What is the Lord’s reaction to them?

Isaiah first.

He receives a vision of heaven (First Reading), surely a sign of worth. In it the Lord is seated on a high and lofty throne. A Seraphim angel choir is crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!”*

Isaiah reacts to the paradox.

Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Then an angel swoops down, carrying a burning coal! To cleanse Isaiah’s lips!!!! He is doomed alright, but his “doom” is to be made clean through suffering. To be made able to speak of God.

Second, St. Paul says that Christ appeared to him last of all, as to one born abnormally (Second Reading). “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Unworthy, but did the grace of God discard him? No, it appointed him an Apostle even though he had never even met Jesus.

Third, there is the famous Gospel story. Jesus tells Peter, James and John to fish in the deep water (where they had been fishing and fishing all night with no result). Without warning their nets are bloated with fish. Peter cries out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

So we have a problem here. Isn’t the experience of God supposed to lead to peace, forgiveness, and joy instead of shame?

Make a distinction. The real reaction of all three figures is not really shame, which means concluding that they are each ugly and sinful, but instead it is a kind of humility, a finding their of their true place in reality.

Look at it. Each of these men is forced to compare himself directly with the presence of God. When people meet the holiness of God head-on, they are able to see humanness in themselves—as full of holes as a sponge. They could never pretend that they shone like the stars because they saw the real star bursting with light.

Experience of God lets us understand that we are far, far less than God. This is not bad. Our own elegance cannot make us holy but God’s can. At Mass we echo the Roman centurion: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

The answer is, therefore, we can be proud to be unworthy if reception of God’s love is the result. Whenever we react with shame, God does not say in return, “I reject you,” but “I love you dearly. Come be with me, you fine human being.”

John Foley, SJ

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

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson