31st Sunday 2008
Not above or below anybody
Addressing the people and his disciples Jesus said, ‘You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Mt 23: 8-12.
I have two questions for you. The first is this: who are the people you feel are more important than you are? You may think of public figures like the Pope or the President, or celebrities you read about in the papers or see on television. You may think of people closer to home: neighbours or relations.
Each of us could make a list. Almost without noticing it, we judge that other people are more important than that we are. It may be because they are better off, or better educated, more talented, more attractive or more popular. If we meet these people we may try hard to make a good impression on them and to be in their good books. We may not like to admit it but most of us are a little like Hyacinth Bucket, the Lady of the House in the television comedy ‘Keeping Up Appearances.’
We are not inferior to anyone
Jesus tells us there is a wiser way to live. ‘You must call no one on earth your father,’ he says, ‘since you have only one Father and he is in heaven.’ He is not telling us that we should not respect our parents and call them ‘mother’ and ‘father.’ He is telling us not to consider ourselves less that any other human being; we are not inferior to anyone.
Matt Talbot understood this. One day when there was a lull in his work in the timber yard Matt was in his usual secluded place between the stacks of timber. The manager of the company, Mr. Martin was showing a visitor around. He heard some movement among the timber stacks and called out, ‘Come out, whoever is there, and don’t be afraid.’ Matt walked out and said, ‘With all respects to you, sir, I never yet met a man I was afraid of.’ On another occasion a fellow worker spoke about his ‘master,’ meaning Mr. Martin. Matt said, ‘He is only my boss: I have only one master - in heaven.’
The great Indian leader, Mahatma Ghandi was deeply committed to non-violence and said, ‘I shall not fear anyone on earth. I only fear God. I shall bear ill-will towards no one. I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.’
We are not superior to anyone.
Here is the second question: Who are the people you consider to be less important than you are? This is an embarrassing question; we find it hard to admit that we could make a list of these people, and that we keep adding names to the list. If we take part in the Mass every day, we can easily think that we are better than the neighbours who do not go at all. If we help some one who is poor or sick, we can imagine we are more important than that person. Suppose a stranger comes to my door and I think he is a beggar; my attitude to him is likely to change if I discover he is the county manager.
These words of Jesus are good news for the entire world. How different the world would be if everybody believed it and acted accordingly. They are good news especially for those who are poorest and least respected. Imagine people in shanty towns in Latin America or the Philippines meditating on them. The well off world tells them that no one of importance lives in a shanty town. But Jesus words assure them that they are inferior to no one; they need call no one on earth their father.
It is a life long task for each of us to become sufficiently mature and self-possessed and humble to live by these words. At the beginning of each Mass we call to mind our sins: we know at that moment we are not superior to other people. Before Communion we offer each other a sign of peace: we know then that the other people are not superior to us; they are our sisters and brothers.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for letting us know that we need call no one on earth our father because we have only one Father. We pray that we may not allow ourselves to be called rabbi or teacher, because we are all your sisters and brothers.