is the only way up

At times it seems nearly impossible to discern whether we are going up, down, or sideways. We look for guidance but wonder whom to believe, whom to trust. Much of our misgivings rests in the abundance of hypocrisy that we encounter from our leaders, secular and religious.

Up, Down, or Sideways

Hypocrisy breeds distrust and contempt, and no one wants to seek guidance from a hypocrite; from someone who is deemed contemptible; who is not considered trustworthy.

The gospel today covers a lot of territory, and it would be easy to place our focus on one thing at the expense of another. There are two main points which we should consider.

We are told to do what the teachers say, not what they do. That, my brothers and sisters, is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Jesus is often heard chastising the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocritical behavior.

They preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation, ’Rabbi’ (Matthew 23:3-7).

That was then, of course, but hypocrisy can be found in abundance today. Consider our political leaders who—no matter their party affiliation or ideological bent—repeatedly place burdens on their constituents but not on themselves. They say what will win votes but act in their own self-interest. Is there any question why they are viewed with so much contempt, why they are not trusted?

The same can be found with teachers, both secular and religious. A prime example is of course the sexual abuse of children by teachers and religious. How can we learn from people who do not practice what they preach?

Truth matters, and the gospel message illustrates just how much the message is compromised by the faults of the messenger, as well as the institution in which the messenger represents. Do what they say, not what they do, sounds like poor advice. How can we trust what they say when they fail to practice what they teach?

Jesus criticizes the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees when he says to them: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matthew 23:13-14).

We need to be able to discern the truth in the midst of falsehood, but how are we to know what is true and what is not? Paul tells us “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).

It is important that we do not draw faulty and dangerous conclusions from today’s gospel. Above all, the gospel is an invitation to turn our eyes toward our one Father in heaven and toward Christ who shows us how to become a servant. In his apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, Saint John Paul II notes:

One who teaches in this way, with authority, has a unique title to the name of ‘Teacher’ … This image of Christ the Teacher is at once majestic and familiar, impressive and reassuring … I am not forgetful that the majesty of Christ the Teacher and the unique consistency and persuasiveness of His teaching can only be explained by the fact that His words, His parables and His arguments are never separable from His life and His very being. Accordingly, the whole of Christ’s life was a continual teaching: His silences, His miracles, His gestures, His prayer, His love for people, His special affection for the little and the poor, His acceptance of the total sacrifice on the cross for the Redemption of the world, and His resurrection are the actualization of His word and the fulfillment of Revelation. Hence for Christians the crucifix is one of the most sublime and popular images of Christ the Teacher.

If Jesus was harshly critical of the religious authorities of his time, he was also harsh with his disciples and in some ways, with us as well. Jesus challenges us to wear the cloak of humility, which can at times be humiliating. As Christians, we represent Christ in the world today; how we present ourselves to the world is a direct reflection of Christ crucified for we are the body of Christ.

The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” However paradoxical it might seem, the only way to heaven is by going down. When you elevate yourself, you will inevitably be faced with a fall.

As disciples, to the extent possible, we must rid ourselves of selfishness and pride, we must avoid placing ourselves on a pedestal, exalting ourselves before others. Standing on a pedestal not only makes it easy to be knocked off, but the self-elevating height has the effect of moving us further away from God.

Like the Scribes and Pharisees, we often place ourselves on a pedestal, believing that we have special gifts or talents that make us superior to others while we conveniently forget that we all have our shortcomings and weaknesses.  Or at least we want to forget, so that we don’t have to acknowledge to others that we are not quite as good as we might have them believe. For some, the statement “Lord, it is so hard to be humble, when I am perfect in every way” feels so right and true, but in truth, there is only one who has the right to make that statement… and He died for us on a cross some 2000 years ago.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ wrote,

A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul … A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection.

The word ‘humility‘ comes from the Latin word ‘humus‘, which means soil and is generally associated with words such as abject, ignoble, of poor condition, not worth much. Often we perceive a humble person as meek, stooped over with downcast eyes and a soft, timid voice, trying very hard to never be noticed or recognized. However, this is not the vision offered by Jesus, rather, his is one of a keen sense of self—that begins in humility; that we are in this together and we need and depend on one another, that we must use our gifts for the good of others and the glory of God.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that “The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.” And Saint Augustine said that God accepts sacrifices only from the altar of humility. We humble ourselves by being ourselves and God exalts us for who we are.

Humility is a gift neither earned nor self-created.  When we live courageously in the spirit of communion with others we open ourselves to seeing others from God’s perspective. Humility begins in the knowledge that we belong to God.  It is the sense that all of God’s creation is important and that our existence depends on our relationship with others. It is not a matter of denying our own self-interest but in seeing how our interests are connected to the well-being of others.

Humility does not call for us to reject or disparage our God given gifts nor does it require us to think of our gifts as less valued than the gifts God has given others. God has entrusted each of us with certain gifts and abilities and he expects that we use His gifts to their fullest. God measures each of us on our own merit; it is not a competition. What others achieve is never part of the equation; before God, everyone stands alone.

We all wish to stand out; yet, we need to step down from our pedestals and learn to become servants, to humbly thank God for the gifts we have received. Proper gratitude is ultimate virtue; it defines sanctity. To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more, nothing less.


Homily #147
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Malachi 1:14B—2:2B, 8-10
1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13
Matthew 22:1-12

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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