St Etheldreda's

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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

A humble God

Posted July 3, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (Yr A)

St Matthew seems to have been particularly struck by Jesus’ gentleness and humility.  So, for example, while all four Gospels tell of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey, only St Matthew calls attention to the fact that this action fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah about the future Messiah coming to his people, gentle and riding on a donkey, that is, gentle and humble (for riding on a donkey was a gesture of humility, at least if you happened to be a king).  Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, St Matthew includes a Beatitude that we do not find in St Luke (the only other evangelist to report the Beatitudes), namely: ‘Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the land.’  And in today’s Gospel (Matt 11: 25-30) St Matthew, alone of the evangelists, has those wonderful words of Jesus, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’  Of course, all the Gospel writers recognize that Jesus is gentle and humble, but St Matthew makes of these virtues Jesus’ defining characteristic.

But what is most striking about today’s Gospel is the way in which St Matthew links Jesus’ gentleness and humility with a mysterious saying of Jesus that appears to give us a glimpse into the secret inner life of God.  ‘Only the Father knows the Son, and only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom he chooses to reveal him.’   Nowhere else in the first three Gospels do we find such statements about Jesus’ mysterious relationship with the Father, although we find many such statements in the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St John.  For example, in St John: ‘No one has ever seen God: the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he it is who has revealed him.’

Now we expect to find such sublime statements in St John, for he is the sublime theologian.  It is not for nothing that traditionally he is represented by the eagle.  But we don’t expect to find such a soaring theology in St Matthew.  That is why today’s Gospel passage from St Matthew has been described (with a different metaphor) as a ‘meteorite from the Johannine sky’ – seemingly a chunk of St John’s theology that has somehow fallen to earth and become embedded in St Matthew’s Gospel.  In other words, St Matthew, who is generally represented by the human face, suddenly becomes a soaring eagle when he speaks of Jesus’ humility.

In today’s Gospel Reading, from St Matthew, Jesus’ invitation, ‘Come to me, learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart’, is preceded by the statement: ‘Only the Father knows the Son’.  St Matthew seems to be saying:  Only the Father knows the Son’s humility.  Only the Father knows how awesome, how loveable, Jesus’ humility is.  It is strange but wonderful to think that God the Father gazes eternally upon his Son’s humility, and finds in it all moral beauty.

But a further insight is implied in today’s Gospel Reading that is even more astounding.  For if the Son is gentle and humble, so also the Father must be gentle and humble.  For the Son is the perfect image of the Father.  St Paul says that Christ is the perfect icon of God – the image that radiates God’s essence; and the Epistle to the Hebrews, in its opening verses, says of the Son that he is the ‘radiant reflection of the Father’s glory and the imprint of his being’ – meaning: all that the Father is, is mirrored in the Son.

If the Father’s humility is a surprising thought to us, it was not so to the biblical writers.  Through so many stories, so many images and metaphors, the Bible portrays God as a humble God.  We remember, for example, the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who, forgetful of his dignity, goes running to embrace his miscreant son, to cover him with kisses, and to clothe him with the insignia that properly belong to the father alone.  And we recall King David lamenting the death of his rebel son Absalom, who had sought to kill him:  ‘Absalom, my son; my son Absalom.  If only I could have died in your place, Absalom, my son!’  Surely these are images of the God who reveals himself to us as the humble Father, who does not stand on his dignity but hurries towards us with unimaginable condescension and weeps for us like a humble, loving parent: as if to say, Not me, but you.

We should think often of God’s humility, not least because we live in a culture that is crazed with celebrity, preoccupied with power, obsessed with success and glamour.  It will be good to remind ourselves that what enthrals God about Jesus – and about ourselves – is precisely the opposite of all that.  But there is another reason why we should think more of God’s humility.  For one day God will be our judge, and it is always useful to know what your judge is going to be like.  So what will this judge be like?  If he is humble, is he a bit of a softie, perhaps?  Or how will he judge us?  Should we be afraid?  If so, what exactly should we fear when we come before him on the day of judgment?

Is it his power that we should fear?  But what kind of God is it that exercises his almighty power to condemn a poor, frail creature who perhaps in addition to his innate frailty carries all the wounds of a tragic life?  Could I not look such a God in the eye and ask, what sense does it make for you, the Almighty, to condemn me, a poor, frail, wounded creature?  What justice is there in that?  So, before this Almighty Judge I would retain the moral high ground, so to speak.

Or if it is God’s wisdom that will judge us, is that not also unfair, given that we poor human beings have only limited insight?  What sense would it make for God to confront us with his infinite wisdom?  Could I not look God in the eye and protest that just as it would be illogical for an adult to condemn an infant for his lack of wisdom, so it is unfair that the God of infinite wisdom should condemn me, his creature, for all my foolish ways?

And if the God who judges me is the God of all righteousness, could I not object that it is unfair of God to judge me in my unrighteousness, for I was immersed in sinful humanity not by my own choosing, and I have borne the weight of original sin, which was not of my doing, and I have been but a hapless victim of the sin of the world, over which I have had no control?  So before this righteous God I might retain the moral high ground.

But if it is God’s humility that judges me, then that is judgment indeed, to which there is no answer.  For I could not bear to look upon a humble God who turned to reproach me.

Fr Tom Deidun

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