“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
One of my great joys as a village kid was climbing trees. And not just one of MY joys, but something many children of a certain age loved doing in my part of the world. I never see anyone doing it these days, and for good reason, it’s pretty dangerous. A whole lot of things can go wrong, and when they do – seriously bad things often result. But back in those days, society was a little blind to many of these sorts of things. And so, we (my friends and I) climbed and climbed and climbed. Every tree was a new adventure, something to be conquered.
And there was a kind of pattern to it, a way in which I climbed a new tree, one I had never climbed before. And these trees were mostly orange trees. At first, I was extremely tentative, quite careful as I started up the trunk. And the reason is simple – I didn’t have any experience climbing that particular orange tree, didn’t have any knowledge of what was the best route or how high I could go. And so I was really careful, testing each branch before I stepped on it, each handhold before I grasped it. Yet, that didn’t last long. You see, the more and more familiar I became with a particular orange tree, the more confident I became, and the faster and faster I would climb. After all, what could go wrong?
Well, lots of things. Inevitably, my comfortability, my over-confidence, would result in some sort of close call, a near-miss that usually scared the daylights out of me. It might be a branch that broke. It might be my hand slipping off a handhold. Or it might be finding myself too high up in the tree – stuck – without any idea how to get down. Fortunately, I never got seriously hurt, nor did any of my friends. Some kids did, sadly. After a few of these close calls, I learned to be a lot more careful, learned to slow down and be aware of the dangers, learned to not take chances I might regret.
In a certain sense, tree-climbing taught me a kind of humility, it taught me to understand my limitations, taught me to not grow overconfident, taught me to never lose respect for the tree. It’s funny how the moment I was SURE that I was on solid ground or on a solid branch, was precisely when I was NOT.
“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”
This admonition comes from the mouth of St. Paul in our Second Reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, yet it fits in so well with our other two readings. In the First Reading we heard the incredible story of God’s calling of Moses on Mt. Horeb. Two things are clearly on display here. First, God’s majesty, his power, his profound “otherness” – shown through the burning bush and one of the most well-known statements in the Scripture,
“I am who am.”
Incredible stuff. But the second thing on display is the humility of Moses. He knows his own weaknesses and unworthiness as he engages with God in a kind of holy dialogue. He knows that this is not a conversation between equals, knows that he pales in comparison to the One to whom he is speaking. He even questions his ability to carry out what God is asking of him. (In one verse left out from this passage he asks God directly, “Who am I . . .?” Yet, his humility is not a weakness. In fact, it’s a strength, something that makes him the perfect person to carry out this mission. His humility, his understanding of his own limitations and probably knowledge of his own sins, allows him to be a channel of God’s grace – a channel for the Living God to work through him. His humility is in a real sense a conduit, where pride or over-confidence would have been an obstacle.
And in the Gospel Reading from St. Luke we hear Jesus telling the people to “repent” and to basically stop trying to figure out the righteousness of other people. Jesus wants them to take a deep look inward so that they can be better at loving outward – look at their own individual lives, their own individual hearts, and ask themselves how they each can be better, how they each can be more faithful, how they each can bear fruit. It takes true humility to make an honest assessment of oneself, true humility to admit that we are each part of the problem, true humility to admit our faults and strive to be better.My dear friends, spiritual pride or spiritual arrogance, is a dangerous place to be. It can lead us to believe that we are on sure-footing, that there is nothing in us that needs to change, that God is completely pleased with us and that other people are the problem. This kind of self-righteousness is kind of like the ten year-old me, racing up the tree branches without respecting the tree, without understanding what could go wrong, without knowing how to move to greater and greater heights in the safest way possible – in the loving arms of our God on whom we rely for absolutely everything.
Moses understood that, and changed the history of a people forever. May we always remember the dangers of spiritual over-confidence, the dangers that come with believing that we are more faithful than others, or that we can go it alone.
And so, let’s each embrace a life of true humility, the kind that opens our hearts and minds to all the wonderful things God wants to achieve through us.
The sky’s, my dear friends, is the limit.