The Very Thorny Question of Worthiness

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Necessity is the mother of invention, author unknown. But a very early version of this wise saying is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (d. 347 BC), and he was a very smart man. So, it must be true. But a lot of wise sayings we encounter that’s relatable we probably already understand in some form from personal experience although we may never have articulated it as intelligently. So, people invent things because they perceive a need or a challenge that demands a solution to make an essential task less burdensome, less time consuming, more efficient, more satisfying. And I am convinced necessity is what motivated some overachieving smart person to invent currency and shoes and dental floss and air conditioning and online dating.

However desperate times call for desperate measures, which most likely came from Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician (d. 370 BC) who was referring to illnesses and their remedies. But applied to other things it refers to a need or challenge that is no longer just a suggestion or a preference, no longer just a necessity even but something greater, something beyond essential, something that demands taking an even greater risk to the point of compromise and outright recklessness.

The synagogue official was clearly not a fan of the itinerant Galilean preacher. He had a legitimate enough sounding job title that proclaimed his level of education and professional expertise which may have prevented him from expressing his admiration or disdain more publicly. He would have followed news of this rising celebrity as his name and great deeds made their rounds among family and colleagues. He may even have contributed an opinion or two about who Jesus was and what he was doing. But suddenly he was confronting a dire situation. His daughter was deathly ill, a child most dear to his heart. He must have had access to some level of medical care, whatever they had then. But she was not responding well, and hope was fading fast. Maybe he came up with the idea himself to admit his arrogance and grovel. Maybe his wife talked him into it. But it appeared he was no longer concerned about his job security or anything he may have thought about Jesus, or the things people said Jesus did. He seemed no longer concerned about what family and colleagues would think or say. At this point, he was willing to surrender his reputation, his honor, his life’s work. He was willing to beg on his knees for his daughter’s life. Desperate times, desperate measures. And to anyone else total madness and utter recklessness.

The woman afflicted with hemorrhages was somehow able to afford 12 years of costly medical care. We know nothing of her background. We only come upon her at this same moment of desperation and madness and recklessness as the synagogue official. “She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.’” Desperate if you ask me.

And Jesus extended them life and healing. He required of them no promise of lifelong allegiance or total commitment. And if they paused long enough to assess their relationship with him, could they rightly claim they deserved what he gave them?

I encounter people sometimes who are not shy about asking outrageous things of God—unlikely outcomes, unprecedented allowances, impossible cures, even outright miracles because God is compassion and love beyond measure. But when God asks simple things of them, they are seldom sparing in their outrage. Go to church every Sunday? Are you serious? Forgive a friend’s lapse of judgment? A neighbor’s outburst or selfishness or unkindness? Carve my heart out with a knife while you’re at it!

When we grovel, we admit out loud that we are undeserving. When God extends us a kindness or grants what we ask, God is telling us he has decided we are deserving and probably not for any of the reasons we thought to begin with. What would have prompted the only-begotten Son of God to step down from his glorious throne in the heavens to be conceived in the womb of one of his humble creatures, be born a helpless child in a lowly manger, walk the dust of the earth feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, cleansing lepers, raising the dead, arguing with the self-righteous and hard hearted, only to be humiliated, tortured, and killed, and not rain down destruction upon them in justifiable retribution? St. Paul did not sugarcoat it. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” It is his gracious compassion and love alone and not our station or any merit or achievement that has gained us favor in God’s eyes. From the beginning and without interruption, God formed humanity to be imperishable; in the image of his own nature God made us. Our worth is not in question. It has never been. Before God we are of no value. But exactly by God’s gracious mercy we have been deemed worthy of himself.

So, it smacks of utter and complete self-righteousness when anyone who has no inherent worth, anyone whose worth and dignity are entirely a gift they did not earn, to look down upon another who is equally without worth and despise and demean them as undeserving of honor and consideration and kindness. When people with money or an education or titles or reputation pronounce with all their gravitas that they have a right to deprive others who are beneath them of what is God’s prerogative alone to give until these unfortunates earn their worth or show even a hint of regard for their exalted station, they are completely misled, like a bunch of fleas telling other fleas to take a hike because the same dog they inhabit gave them the privilege to evict anyone undeserving.

When we set out on the road to build this magnificent temple to God, I was told a couple of times that supporting this project was outrageous and disgusting, an utter waste of time and resources since church attendance was declining steeply and we should address more urgent and dire needs instead. I never disagreed or denied what they said to be true, but I still told them we would have a place for them.

It may sting a bit when someone is unkind especially if I deserved it or showed a lack of patience, consideration, or sensitivity. Yet I am aware every day that God alone has chosen us for himself and has given us the dignity of adoption and an everlasting inheritance. Jesus alone has given us a share in his life and his mission of mercy to those to whom he sends us, that we can call on the Father in his name, that we have assurance of his faithful Spirit until the end of the age. You say you feel unworthy? News flash. We all are. But when God decided to stoop down and lift you up, it’s not because you were so darn cute or awesome or accomplished. Just be so kind as to return the favor.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021

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