Today’s Special: Humble Pie

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

“When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”

I’ve sometimes wondered what I’d have to say in a homily to elicit a similar response from my parishioners. What would I have to say for a group of you, after Mass, to take me to the top of Hill Street, for example, and hurl me down headlong? Probably something quite controversial and offensive.

Jesus’ first homily in his hometown of Nazareth did not go over so well. Clearly He said something so controversial and offensive that His fellow Nazarians wanted to kill Him. One moment they were amazed at His gracious words; the next moment, they wanted to hurl Him off a cliff.

Jesus tells His fellow Nazarians that He’s not going to perform any miracles for them; He’s not going to do for them what He did for the people of Capernaum. Hearing this, the Nazarians might have been understandably upset. “Why wouldn’t you do for your neighbors what you were willing to do for strangers?” But it’s not until Jesus tells them why He won’t perform any miracles that they want to kill Him.

Jesus compares His fellow Nazarians to the Israelites who were alive at the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These Israelites were wicked people. And because of their wickedness, God did not perform any mighty deeds for them. Instead, God performed miracles for outsiders. Through the prophet Elijah, God fed a pagan widow and her son who were on the verge of starvation. And through the prophet Elisha, God healed a pagan general, Naaman the Syrian, who was afflicted with leprosy. There were other widows and leppers in Israel at that time, but because of their wickedness, God withdrew His grace from them.

Being compared to these wicked people is what provoked the Nazarians’ aggressive response to Jesus. Many of the Nazarians, like Jesus, were decedents of King David. They were of royal blood. And they probably thought that they were decent people. They probably thought of themselves as morally superior in almost every way to the wicked Israelites who lived during the time of the prophets. “At least we’re not like our ancestors. At least we’re not as ignorant and sinful as they were.”

A similar attitude is prevalent in our own day in age. We have tendency to think, that by the very fact we are more modern than our ancestors, that we are morally superior to them in almost every way. “We moderns are the enlightened ones; those historical figures are the ignorant and bigoted ones.”

In our gospel, Jesus knocks the Nazarians off their high horse. He says that they are just as wicked as their ancestors were and, as such, are just as undeserving as they were of God’s grace. This might seem a bit harsh. But sometimes we need to get knocked off our high horse in order to become more grounded in the truth. Sometimes we need to be humiliated in order to learn humility.

Like the prophets of the Old Testament—like Jeremiah, Elijah, and Elisha—Jesus has more than just words of comfort to offer us. His words are truth. And to be brought suddenly into the light of truth when we’ve have lived so long in the darkness of error is painful. There’s a period of adjustment, the eyes of our soul have to adapt, before we can begin to rejoice with the truth.

Like the Nazarians in today’s gospel, we too need to be knocked off our high horse. We too need to give up the illusion that we are morally superior to our ancestors by the very fact that we are more modern than them. We have just as much potential for ignorance and sin today as those who lived one-hundred, five-hundred, or a thousand years ago. If anything, our potential is greater; with modern technology, we have the ability to spread ignorance more widely and commit sin more efficiently. We are not better than anyone who has gone before us just by the mere fact that we have come after them.

Jesus invites the Nazarians to eat some humble pie. They decline and decide the kill the chef instead. The question is, what will we decide to do? If we think something that Christ and the Church teach is outdated, and therefore ignorant or bigoted, maybe we should think again. It’s possible that we are the ones who are in the wrong. If we think we are decent people just because we are not slaveholders or members of some communist or fascist regime, maybe we should think again. Just because we’re free of a grave moral defect in one area doesn’t mean we are free from a grave defect in another area. “At least I’m not as bad as them” is not a high moral standard. And the ultimate moral standard is Christ, and He calls us to perfection.

So, let us eat our humble pie. Let’s admit that Christ and His Church have more to teach us than we might realize. Let’s accept the fact that we might not be as morally good as we think we are; that we could be just as ignorant and sinful as those of the past. If we do this, if we humble ourselves before the Lord, we will open ourselves to more perfectly God’s grace, to the action of Christ in our lives. Amen.