Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 35:16-18; 2 Tim 4:6-18; Lk 18:9-14

It’s relatively easy to summarize the main themes of each of the three readings we have just heard. The book of Sirach says "keep crying out to God for our needs." The letter to Timothy urges us to "have confidence in God to bring us to the heavenly Kingdom." The passage from the Gospel of Luke advises, "Do not despise other people and glorify yourself." It’s harder, though, trying to figure out which one to accent in a homily. After some consideration I decided to go with the last one, mainly because the idea of "despising someone" intrigues me.

Maybe one of the reasons I’m drawn to that topic is because the cultural mood of our country is so much about despising others, as the current political campaign so sadly shows in many examples: there are people refusing to shake hands or walking out on a debate. But long before this political campaign began, "despising groups of people" had become a staple of many stand-up comedy shows on TV and radio—despising homosexuals, Jews, Hispanics, Catholics, blacks. The shocking surge in the amount of bullying nationwide is also rooted in seeing some other people as "despised." Now we can add the Internet to TV, radio and stand-up comedy. Of course, despising others makes any possibility of meaningful communication absolutely impossible. How did we get this way?

Let’s consider the notion of "despising someone" a little more closely. It’s very easy to say that you don’t like someone. In that case you can just avoid them at parties and so on. If you have to work with someone you don’t like, you would consider it as an irritation but you can probably put up with it. And in most cases you can even interact with them on corporate tasks. That happens all the time in businesses today. But "despising someone" goes a couple of steps further than disliking. As dictionary definitions go, they agree that "despising someone" means "to look down on someone with disdain," "to regard with contempt," "to view with scorn," "to regard as contemptible and worthless." Then another step beyond that is the intent to "irritate, annoy or even hurt," "to try to injure or thwart" the other person. Sadly, all of that is showing up in this political election and the phenomenon of bullying.

We, as Catholic religious, might disavow ourselves of any such attitudes and behaviors, but we can’t deny that we are influenced by them just by living in the middle of them. And I must say that I have detected some "despising" in criticisms that some people, Catholics or otherwise, make of the Catholic Church and its leadership in particular. Living in the culture we absorb this mean attitude sometimes unknowingly.

The real question is: how does one move from "disliking someone," which is understandable and probably unavoidable because of personality differences, to "despising someone?" One answer that I found noteworthy and provocative says that the move from disliking to despising happens because of a loss of a sense of reverence in one’s life. Reverence is recognizing and appreciating the value or goodness of a person or thing. I’m talking about reverence as a natural aptitude, not in any specific religious sense, such as a book-lover has a reverence for a rare book. Reverence appreciates and responds to innate value. The Pharisee in today’s gospel passage doesn’t see any value or good in the other people who are praying in the Temple. Even though he himself is performing religious acts, there’s no real reverence in him at all. I do feel that’s one of the reasons there’s so much "despising" in our culture today: because a lot of people have just lost any sense of reverence. So it might be good for us today to do a little self-examination on the reverence in our own lives. Do we instinctively turn to look for the value or goodness of a person or thing we meet? That’s reverence. And this natural reverence forms a foundation for a reverence toward God. It’s good to remember that.

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