FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
“ … when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor: 12:10
Many years ago I was working as a therapist at a famous alcohol and drug treatment center in California. It was a place that attracted many of the movie and rock stars of that era. In a particular therapy group that I was leading, one of the attendees was a very well-known African-American man who had spent years entertaining as a singer and dancer. I remember that he was a little man with a great big smile on his face.
This particular day, however, he was not smiling. The group that he was a part of had been given an assignment to read a particular article and write out their response. As I went around the circle asking each person to read what they had written to the rest of the group, I noticed that this great entertainer was subtly moving his chair back little by little as his turn got closer.
Then it dawned on me: he didn’t want to read out loud. So, I quietly passed over him and went on with the rest of the group. Afterwards, he came up to me and explained what had happened to him in the group session that had just ended.
Here’s what he told me: “I’ve been on stage since I was three years old. I can’t read or write.” I then asked him how he signed the papers to get into a place like the Center we were then in. “I had my chauffeur do it for me,” he said.
I was stunned by that admission. But even more so by what he said next: “Many times through the years, I began the effort to learn how to read and write. But somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to use this embarrassment as a means of humbling me.” “What do you mean?” I asked him. “Well,” he said, “in the world I live in it’s so easy to get carried away with your own specialness. I wanted to make sure I always remembered what I came from and how enormously lucky I am to have had the success I’ve had. It could have gone another way. But the good Lord blessed me with some talents. I don’t ever want to forget that. This is my way of not forgetting.”
He ended by saying: “I was fighting with myself today as to whether or not to tell the group. But you decided for me. It’s so embarrassing. It’s so humbling. But it’s good for me at the same time.”
“… when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That’s the way St. Paul put the same idea. He also told us that repeatedly he asked God to relieve him of a terrible wound that he bore in his body. Then he discovered that it was precisely because of that wound that he was able to open himself up even more completely to God’s grace working through him.
Like that singer/entertainer, it was Paul’s way of emptying himself of his ego.
The gospel we heard today also tells a story of weakness, of a humbling experience. Only the person who is rebuffed is none other than Jesus himself.
The same Jesus who healed a woman by curing her of her years of bleeding; the same Jesus who raised up the “little child” who was thought to be dead; the same Jesus who was astonishing large groups of people with his prophetic insight and wisdom; this same Jesus is dismissed by the people in his home town as being “offensive,” as Mark’s gospel today puts it.
Instead of being amazed and astonished, the hometown crowd is put off by all of this. Who does this guy that used to live right down the street from us think he is?
Jesus is now the one who is left flabbergasted – astounded by their lack of acceptance and faith. On a purely human level, he was humbled – just as he was when he went into the desert and was severely tempted by Satan; just as he would be when he was nailed to a cross naked before the world.
According to the great spiritual writers, humility is the ultimate divine quality. All the other virtues depend on it. The word is based on the Latin word “humus” meaning “earth.” A truly humble person, then, is someone who is “grounded”, who has their feet firmly planted on the earth, who knows clearly who they are and who they are not. Specifically, that they are not God.
Humility is so important a virtue, in fact, that the Bible begins with a story that highlights it. It’s the story about two people we all know as Adam and Eve.
If you remember, God creates this wondrous garden and places these two people in it. What he then tells them in effect is: enjoy everything in this marvelous garden, except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Stay away from that and everything will be fine.
Why would God ask them not to eat of that particular tree? The reason is because the tree represents our human desire for certitude, for being all-knowing and all-complete within ourselves, for being God. It represents our refusal to want to learn from failure, from the journey that will teach us how dependent we are on one another and ultimately on God. It symbolizes our inability to differentiate between being an image of God, and being God Himself.
Adam and Eve “fall” in this story. They opt for what the serpent whispers in their ears – and is still whispering in ours: that we humans can become God; that we can be filled with power and rule over everything.
What God wants us to know is that it is in our brokenness, in our failures, even in our sins that we will be able to open ourselves up to the possibility of God’s grace rushing in and filling the void.
This is why Alcoholics Anonymous ranks the admission of “powerlessness” as the First Step towards recovery. This is why the gospels rank “poverty of spirit,” or humility, as the first among virtues. It is so necessary because without it God cannot achieve his efforts to slowly evolve our consciousness in a way that will change us and convert us.
As one writer puts it: “Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager.“ The gospel puts it another way: “Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it will yield a rich harvest.”
Humility is all about dying – dying to our false self, our ego dominated self. Without that death, we won’t allow ourselves to be weak and vulnerable enough to allow God’s grace – his gift of himself – to find a space where he can “dwell among us.”
That’s why St. Paul could so gladly and triumphantly say:
“ … when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.