The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Zechariah 9:9-10 + Romans 8:9,11-13 + Matthew 11:25-30
“… for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.”
Humility is the foundation of the spiritual life. In Sunday’s Gospel Reading Jesus teaches us how to lay this foundation. Jesus shows us that humility is at the heart of all progress in the spiritual life. Note that this is more than just saying that humility is the first lesson learned by spiritual beginners. Jesus is going further, insisting that humility is at the heart of the progress made each day by the most spiritually advanced saints.
In the portraits of Jesus painted by the four evangelists, Jesus rarely speaks out loud to God the Father. Yet in today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus not only speaks to the Father, but exclaims: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.”
No matter how old you are, no matter how far you have already progressed in the spiritual life, humility is the soil needed for further growth. If you are a farmer, or even if you garden, you know that when it comes to growing things from the earth, there’s good soil and there’s bad soil. There’s soil that’s rich in nutrients and moisture, and then there’s soil that’s dry and depleted of nutrients.
If we want to say, then, that the soil of humility is meant to be rich in spiritual nutrients and moisture, what are we saying? Why does humility make for rich spiritual soil? Saint Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite reformer who lived in the sixteenth century, wrote:
“While we are on this earth nothing is more important to us than humility. … In my opinion we shall never completely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God. By gazing at His grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness… by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble” [The Interior Castle I,2,9].
St. Teresa makes plain that focusing upon God rather than upon oneself is key to fostering humility. Yet St. Paul in Sunday’s Second Reading speaks about another key way of shifting one’s attention in the spiritual life from what is less important to what is greater. St. Paul explains the importance of focusing upon the human spirit rather than upon human flesh.
What does St. Paul mean in the Second Reading when he states to the Romans: “You are not in the flesh”? Obviously, no one would deny that each Christian making his way through life on this earth journeys within, or through, a human body. We all live with flesh and blood. The human body is an essential part of making one’s pilgrimage through life.
But when St. Paul insists that “You are not in the flesh”, he’s shifting attention to the principle by which the pilgrim can bring focus to his earthly life. That is to ask the following: is gratification of the flesh’s five senses the motivating principle for the pilgrim’s choices? Or does that pilgrim live “in the spirit”, meaning that his choices seek to allow the Holy Spirit to rule—to give order and aim—to the pilgrim’s journey?
Throughout the Church’s history, this contrast between the flesh and the spirit has led to many heresies. St. Augustine of Hippo, a fifth-century bishop in northern Africa, spent many years before his baptism as a member of a sect based upon one such heresy. This group believed that the difference between flesh and spirit was not only a contrast, but a sharp division between evil and good. To grow in holiness meant to them to reject not only the flesh, but everything material.
What that heresy ignores is that “in the beginning”, God created the heavens and the earth and everything within them, both visible and invisible. Within the first chapter of Genesis, we hear that God “looked at everything He had made, and found it very good” [Genesis 1:31]. Material things cannot be made evil. Only persons and their actions can be evil, by putting last things first. Material things are among the last that matter in life, because they will not last. Knowing this truth and ordering one’s choices according to it foster humility, disposing oneself to abiding “in the spirit”, which is to say, abiding more fully in God.