The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2017 – Cycle A
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Psalm 146; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12
You probably don’t know Ruby Turpin. But you do know Ruby Turpin.
Ruby is a middle aged woman of 47 years, overweight and overbearing. She is married to Claud over whom she exerts her control as she does every room she enters. A domineering personality, Ruby considers herself a person of good disposition and humour. Yet for someone supposedly so confident and strong she has two telling traits. She always notices people’s feet. For instance, the well-dressed lady wearing red and gray suede shoes to match her dress, the ugly girl wearing Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks, the old woman with tennis shoes and her white-trashy mother with bedroom slippers. Of course, Ruby Turpin wears good black patent leather pumps. At night she sometimes occupies herself naming the classes of people as she sees them. On the bottom of the heap are black people; then next to them – not above – are the white-trash; then above them are home-owners, and above them are home-and-land owners like her and Claud. Above her and Claud are people with a lot of money and bigger houses and much more land. But some of these people are just common and ought to be below her and Claud. Thus the world as seen and ordered by Ruby Turpin. [See the story, Revelation by Flannery O’Connor]
You don’t know Ruby Turpin. But you do know Ruby Turpin.
Ruby Turpin may only be a literary character of the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor but, how many of us, like Ruby, define ourselves and who we are by making comparisons and judgments between us and other people? How many of us raise ourselves up by putting other people down? How many of us inflate our ego, our self-image at the expense of other people? Like Ruby, we would never speak these thoughts out loud – the truth would shatter us – but they meander through our minds.
Is the self-image and public person we create by any of these manners who we really are? We all struggle to discover and define ourselves. And that struggle is for many of us an aspect that marks us throughout our lives. Many of us, most of us(?), if we are honest, are insecure and unsure of ourselves to greater and lesser degrees. And so, like Ruby, we resort to protecting ourselves, first of all from ourselves, by creating not quite a lie but not quite the truth either. We regretfully deprive ourselves and others of the truth, the talents and genius, the wonder and quirks, the weaknesses and sin of who we are. We particularly deprive ourselves of the joy of experiencing God’s acceptance, mercy and salvation.
“Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you are wise by human standards, not many of you are powerful, not many are of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish, the weak, the lowly and those who count for nothing…” As usual, Paul minces no words as he cuts through the façade of the Corinthian Christians. Are his words any less relevant for 21st century American Christians?
Our whole society is a façade, a false front. We are so desperate for people to like us that we would prefer to present a false persona than our honest selves. Is the description of the person in the chat room or the photo on our iPhone the truth? As the question posed in every episode of the game show, To Tell the Truth, “Will the real, Jane Doe, please stand up?” The question isn’t do we know our real selves but do we accept and acknowledge the real ME? Deep down we all know the truth. Counselors, spiritual directors, psychologists, priest-confessors never tell us anything we don’t already know. They simply draw out of us the truth about ourselves we are unwilling to face. Paul is more direct and in your face.
What Paul and the prophet Zephaniah call us to live is honestly. And honesty by another name is humility. Humility does not mean groveling or denying that we are of any worth. Such an attitude rejects the goodness God has created within each of us and is itself false. The members of the Corinthian Church, Ruby Turpin and us think we are better than other people. To live a humble honesty is to first live the truth of who we are, no more, and no less. It is said that when people came to the Catholic Worker House in New York City, the already famed Dorothy Day would ask who they came to see. She never presumed that they were there for her. To live a humble honesty is to admit that we are needy. That we need God and other people. If we are to make any sense out of our earthly lives, if we are going to amount to anything, our own limited human resources are not going to be enough. We need God to make sense out of our earthly lives. And in Jesus, our God engages us through other people. We need God to bring us into lasting worth. We need other people to bring us into lasting worth. We cannot do this human experience alone. We cannot embark on the spiritual journey alone. Humility is not a denial of our worth, but a sense of realism and honesty about who I am and where my true worth comes from.
Brothers and sisters, not many of us are wise, not many of us are powerful, and not many of us are from the upper-class. We are at times foolish, at times willingly give in to our weaknesses, and all of us count for nothing in the grand scheme of things. Humility is the path to our true selves because it is the path to God. And God has chosen us. God has chosen you and me. If you seek humility, you will discover your true self and find God.
[Phrases and ideas were taken from When God Speaks by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk]