October 30, 2011 - Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

When the power goes out, we realize how powerless we are. We flip the light switches, but nothing happens. Really, that small movement of our fingers does not in reality create light, but we forget that, until the power goes out. Have any of you ever been driving a car when the power steering goes out? It quickly becomes obvious how hard it is to control a 2-ton car. Two fingers on the wheel is not going to get the job done. How much more so when the car runs out of gas! You can press the accelerator all you want, but that car is not going anywhere.

Health is sort of like this too. We are walking along, when we are suddenly hit by a cold or the flu or a headache. It slowly becomes clear how much we depend on health. When I have a headache or a stomachache, I cannot think straight; I can barely hold a conversation, let alone any kind of polite conversation. We seem so powerful and independent, but then we realize how much we depend on electricity and gasoline and good health and so many other factors just to get through the day.

This principle holds true for the spiritual life. We do not realize how much we depend on the grace of God to get through the day, but if that grace were cut off, just for a few hours, we would be more in the dark than when the electricity is gone. I cannot imagine how many times my guardian angel has saved my life. I notice it occasionally in the close calls, when I almost kill myself by my own stupidity, but I would guess that it is a couple of times each day, at least.

And the supreme grace of God is the Holy Spirit, who is himself God. We Christians do not realize how much the Holy Spirit changes our lives. We look at the world 2000 years ago, and it seems pretty bad: violent and brutal and short, and then we attribute the change to our more modern sensibilities. Where did ideas like human rights and scientific progress come from? It is no surprise that these have all appeared in the last 2000 years, since the Holy Spirit was sent.

It is not as if we modern people are beyond cruelty and war. We need only look at those parts of the world where the Holy Spirit has not filled the hearts of the faithful, or even look at those places where the Holy Spirit was rejected and denied such as Germany in the 1930’s. People are worried now about the impending economic crisis or the impending climate crisis. What about the impending spiritual crisis? An entire generation is being raised in Western Europe and Canada without baptism.

This is the essence of humility: realizing the truth about how weak we really are; realizing how much we depend on God. We are not so independent as we suppose. It is easy to sit in the comfort of our well-lit homes, eating food from the fridge and thinking how very independent we are. Then the electricity is cut out, the gas is turned off, and the farmer stops selling us food. Now we are shivering in our dark homes, eating nothing and thinking whether we will survive.

God has to keep us in a certain balance. If he withdrew his grace too much, we would just die, but if he gave us everything, we would begin to think that we are doing just fine without him. If we want more from God, we should learn humility. Like a child on their mother’s lap, even so our souls are entirely dependent on God, so we should learn to have the kind of trust in God that a toddler has in their mother.

St. Paul clearly knew this. In this section from Thessalonians, he is relating how hard he worked when he was among them. He did not take his share from the collection, as would have been his right. He worked as a tentmaker by day and preached the Gospel by night, and preached the Gospel by day and made tents at night. He says this not to build himself up but to remind the Thessalonians how much he loved them.

Then, having said all this, he thanks God that his work was fruitful. He thanks God unceasingly that when he had preached the word, it did not fall on deaf ears. He thanks “God who is also working in you believers.” He recognizes that he worked hard, but God worked harder. He preached the word, but God gave the conversion. He flipped the switch, but God turned on the lights.

The prophet Malachi is reminding the priests of this reality. He tells them that unless they begin following the straight and narrow way of God, he will turn their blessings into curses. What is it really when a priest blesses? A movement of the hands and a few words. The power is coming from somewhere else. The power is coming from God, and he can shut off that power.

God has unlimited power available, unlimited grace. We only survive because of that share of grace that he gives us, and he wants to give us more: he can give us the grace to pick up a mountain and cast it into the sea; he can give us the grace to fly up to heaven and hear the angels singing; he can exalt us above all the nations, if only we will humble ourselves.

What benefit would any of these graces be to us if we were not humble? The scribes and Pharisees wanted to impress human beings with their holiness; they wanted the place of honor at feasts and synagogues; they wanted titles and respectful salutations. The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not that they wanted too much but that they wanted to little. God is holding out in his hands the grace to make us like gods, and the Pharisees want a nice chair and a little respect.

What sort of grace is God offering us? The grace to be the greatest: “The greatest of you will be your servant.” Who are the greatest people on earth? Servants like Blessed John Paul II, who spent his life serving the Church, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered to die for another man. Ambition is no bad thing, but have the right ambition! Do not play around with small toys like honorifics and chairs. Make it your ambition to serve others with the strength and power of God, and you will discover that that power is unlimited. Human respect and awards will mean nothing in comparison.