The Donkey and the War Chariots

Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Zech 9:9-10; Ps 144; Rom 8:9.11-13; Mt 11:25-30

As Christians who regularly hear the words of Scripture, we can sometimes make the mistake of listening to the sounds without understanding the meaning of the words. Today's First Reading is a good example of when it is easy to listen without understanding. So I would just like to repeat a few lines again, because these lines are so remarkable. The prophet Zechariah talks about a victorious king who is ‘humble’ and ‘riding on a donkey’. Picturing the scene, this king might seem incongruous to the point of ridicule. Yet this humble king is not to be underestimated since,  “He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem.” In other words, power measured in the worldly sense, in this case chariots and horses, will not be able to resist this king who rides on a donkey. Now the king is clearly a prophecy of Jesus Christ, and Jesus in today's Gospel invites us to learn from him, for he is gentle and humble in heart. So I would like to devote this short homily to the puzzle of humility.

Now it is probably true to say that humility is not a popular virtue today. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who helped to shape the twentieth century and inspire Nazism, despised Christianity. He especially despised Christian humility, claiming that it made people mean and lowly instead of striving for greatness. Christianity, however, does call us to greatness - to become saints in the glory of heaven. But the greatness of humility is completely different from the greatness of pride. The proud person strives for greatness by his own efforts and power: he is closed in on himself and incapable of love. The humble person accepts the greatness that comes from God, because of the love of God. This is why the greatest song of humility, the Magnificat of Mary, is also a song of thanksgiving to God for the gift of greatness, “My song glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior .... he looks on his servant in her lowliness ... the Almighty has done great things for me.”

So the humble person can also be great, but the lesson goes deeper than this since the greatness that comes as a Gift utterly surpasses the hollow greatness of pride. There is in fact a very practical example of such a victory from recent history. Many of you will remember the Cold War, and how for decades we lived in Western Europe in the shadow of the Soviet threat. Soviet land forces alone in the 1980s totaled over 5 million men under arms and nearly 60,000 main battle tanks. Clearly, the war chariots of Ephraim mentioned in the First Reading had been updated for modern times. But these mighty armies met the same fate as their predecessors, because this entire force disintegrated overnight, vanishing like the morning dew. And although the fall of the Berlin Wall was the public expression of this breakdown, the seed was sown some years earlier in Communist Poland. For me, the significant event was during a visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland. At a crucial moment, the Communist leader was so overcome that he bowed to the Holy Father. In that gesture it became clear where the real authority lay. Following Christ, the Pope, without an army, had defeated the war chariots of Ephraim.

The overthrow of Communism in Europe is, therefore, a wonderful example of the greatness of humility mastering the greatness of pride. But the same lesson applies to daily life. We too, are called to greatness, and we too are called to the heroism of daily life, cultivating virtue and uprooting evil. The mistake that many Christians make, however, is to strive for greatness by themselves - regulating God to a corner of their lives. This is folly and can only end in ruin. The first duty of a Christian is to stay close to Christ, to have the humility to ask God for help and to make use of the supernatural means that he has given us. Here are a few practical suggestions: make prayer a daily activity; make frequent use of the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist; give away those material possessions we do not need and which distract us from God; fill our hearts and our homes with good and holy images; keep good company and avoid evil influences. The relationship with God, the humble love of God, must come first in our lives. If this is in place, then there is no challenge, no force in this world that we cannot overcome by grace. Certainly, we shall not need to fear the war chariots of Ephraim.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Mary Magdalene and Our Lady of the Rosary, Bexhill, 6th July 2008

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