Once there was an older, very stern, upright, humorless woman—we’ll call her Mrs. Pendergast—who wasn’t feeling well. She went to see a doctor, who began by asking her some routine questions. “Do you drink at all?” “No, I don’t have that vice; I would never stoop to using alcohol!” she insisted. “Do you smoke?” “Of course not! Smoking is a filthy and disgusting habit!” she responded. “What’s your sleep like?” “I go to bed every night at ten o’clock, and am up at six every morning,” she answered haughtily. “Unlike some people, I have no time for partying or late-night carousing, as I have important things to do every day.” “Do you have a stressful lifestyle?” “Definitely not,” the patient asserted; “unlike most people, I make a point of praying and meditating for at least an hour every day.” “I see,” said the doctor as he looked up from taking notes. “Now, Mrs. Pendergast, what’s wrong?” “I’ve been having terrible headaches, Doctor,” she replied, to which the doctor responded, “I think I see your problem. Your halo is too tight” (Fr. Joe Robinson, Guiding Light: Feed My Soul, Year C, p. 157).
It is indeed the case that when we have an excessively high opinion of ourselves, we can create some of our own problems—not necessarily in a physical sense, but certainly in a spiritual one. In the 17th century St. Veronica Guiliani had a very bad habit as a girl. She was by nature quite prayerful and religious, but she judged or resented others when they didn’t join in her religious devotions—and this attitude, of course, was not pleasing to God. Veronica repented of this fault, and went on to live a life of true holiness, after having a vision in which her heart appeared to be made of steel. When we think well of others, or refuse to judge them, our hearts become spiritually healthier and more conformed or united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus—but when we pass judgment or consider ourselves better than the people around us, we move in the other direction. Our Lord often criticized the religious leaders of His day for their hardheartedness, which prevented them from accepting the gift of salvation. Pride and self-righteousness are spiritually deadly. Jesus invites us instead to practice true humility—for only in this way can we be sure that God will be pleased to hear us and answer our prayers.
Virtually every spiritual misfortune humanity has ever experienced—including wars, revolutions, unjust societies, broken homes, and ruined lives—came about because someone tried to seize or exercise authority that rightly belongs only to God. Arrogance of this sort creates disharmony in God’s creation; humility, however, helps us experience and enjoy the inner beauty and peace of the world around us, while also allowing us to cooperate with and recognize the true nature and glory of God’s designs. The humble tax collector was in touch with this truth, but the Pharisee was not; as we might say today, this proud or self-righteous religious leader was part of the problem, not part of the solution. When we humbly acknowledge God’s authority and our dependence on Him, He lovingly responds to our petitions; as the Book of Sirach (35:12-14, 16-18) says, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw until the Most High responds.” Those who consider themselves better or more important than others, however, are like the Pharisee (Luke 18: 9-14) who, according to Jesus, was wasting his time and engaging in self-deception by praying to himself, not to God.
According to St. Teresa of Kolkota, or Mother Teresa, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”—and loving others is an essential part of what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. If our actions, our words, or even our thoughts show disrespect to someone else, we are failing in our Christian duty, and will be held accountable by God. We can understand this easily enough in terms of the sins we directly commit against others; however, there are also sins of omission, in which we fail to do what God expects of us.
On Mission Sunday, we are reminded that every member of the Church is commissioned to help spread the Gospel throughout the world. Relatively few Catholics are called to serve as missionary priests, nuns, or lay evangelists in foreign lands, but the Lord expects all of us to share His Good News by our example and prayers, and by contributing when possible to collections for this purpose. If instead we were to say “I don’t care that there are millions of people who’ve never heard of Jesus—that’s not my problem,” we would be offending God, like the hypocritical Pharisee who thought only of himself. In a similar manner, if we fail in our responsibility as citizens to work for a better world, the Lord will hold us accountable. For instance, to support our culture of death by voting Yes on Michigan’s Proposal 3 would be a grave sin, but it would also be sinful not to vote at all and let that diabolical ballot issue pass by default; it would be like saying “I don’t care that innocent lives will be destroyed by abortion, that parents will lose their moral authority over their children, and that medical personnel will be forced to violate their consciences.” If we make such arrogant and uncaring judgments, we are risking a severe judgment from God, for the Lord is a God of justice Who always hears the cry of the oppressed. Too many people view God as a cosmic vending machine: if you need or want a particular favor from Him, just perform a few good deeds or say a certain number of prayers, and the favor you desire will automatically appear—and if you don’t happen to need anything from God right now, you can just ignore Him until you do. However, the Lord doesn’t conduct business transactions with us; He offers us a loving relationship—but this relationship must be rooted in genuine respect for Him, for ourselves, and for the people around us. This means, above all, acting with humility and fighting the temptation to judge or criticize others. When we’re tempted to look down on someone, it might be helpful to say to ourselves, “Well, for all I know, that person may be more pleasing to God than I am,” and then act accordingly. This simple change of attitude will be very pleasing to our Heavenly Father; it will enable Him to hear our prayers, to bless us in wondrous ways, and to prepare for us a place of honor in His Kingdom.