Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Madonna of Humility - Masaccio
God says through the prophet Isaiah 'My ways are not yours, or my thoughts your thoughts'. All the readings for this week make the same point either explicitly or by implication. Through the prophet Micah, God rejects the costly and elaborate practices of animal sacrifice that are undertaken as 'worship', and replaces them with a simple demand - that worshipers 'do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God'. How can there be any problem about preferring this instruction? The answer is that human beings find it far easier to give money and materials, even in large amounts, than to walk justly, kindly and humbly. That is because such a manner of life flies in the face of our most obvious goals and aspirations -- to live in prosperity, achieve things we can be proud of, defend our rights, and control our own lives.

It is with assumptions like these in mind that Paul acknowledges just how 'foolish' the Christian Gospel can sound. He reminds the Christians at Corinth that 'God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God'. Most of the people he was addressing were poor and socially insignificant, and for them this implies encouragement. 'Consider your own call, brothers and sisters', Paul says: 'not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong'.

Sermon on the Mount - James Tissot
Jesus in the Gospel passage from Matthew goes even further and calls such people 'Blessed'. Indeed the rhetorical force of this list of 'Beatitudes' lies precisely in its systematic reversal of the values we commonly uphold and subscribe to. This cannot but raise a critical issue. What encouragement can we who are relatively rich, successful and powerful find in these passages?

It is a fact of experience that poverty can brutalize as well as liberate. It is thus possible for prosperity to be a blessing -- but only insofar as it enables the the well-to-do to care about justice and to act in kindlier ways more easily than people bowed down by poverty, illness or grief. Far greater difficulty lies in 'walking humbly', which is to say, giving up on pride. Yet as the verses from Psalm 15 make plain, humility is key to dwelling on God's holy hill.

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