Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
-1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Which is the best way to teach a child how to behave? To sit him down and explain the principles of right behavior, beginning with Do good and avoid evil?
Or is it to behave oneself, in word and deed, precisely as one would want the child to behave?
Think of it another way: say your ability to convey right conduct in words is weak, but you give good example. People will give you a pass, and they will not accuse you of inconsistency or hypocrisy. Your child will probably follow your good example. But say you explain perfectly well the norms of acting rightly, but you yourself evidently do not follow them. People will be disgusted, and likely your child will pay your words no mind as he follows your bad example.
St. Paul tells us in this Sunday's lesson, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” What is it that he intends to accomplish by this exhortation? First of all, he has to have complete confidence that his own example is perfect, and indeed he is confident of this even to the point of identifying himself with Christ!
Most of us would be hesitant to tell our children to imitate us simply; rather we would tell them that if they ever saw doing other than what we have taught them, they should follow our teaching and not our bad example. “Do as I say, not as I do.” This is sometimes a sad necessity, and since our older children at least are capable of reasoning, they may understand the point, and at least learn from our example of humility, if not of other virtues.
In order to understand Paul’s injunction, we need to know something of what an example is, and what imitation is. Example and imitation are in a certain sense the most profound realities of the created universe under God. In commenting on Paul’s words, St. Thomas Aquinas magnificently depicts the order of all personal creatures descending from God the Creator in a community of mutual example and imitation. From God to the innumerable ranks of the hierarchy of angels down to human beings in the hierarchical society of the Church, all personal beings are meant to exemplify the divine perfections to those beneath them, and those beneath to imitate these perfections. Then the imitation of that order becomes the example for the next.
In sense, all the moral goodness and happiness of angels and men is found in either manifesting or reflecting God’s perfections before others. This is why we exist: to be happy in becoming like God who is always pouring out his goodness on us. Our God is a happy God, and he wills that we receive and bestow his happy-making goodness.
Notice what Paul says: “I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” Concrete goodness made manifest is very pleasing to see and to receive, and it is of all things the most generously shared, and it makes us happy. Thus Paul pleases and saves those to whom he gives good example, and so he becomes like Christ, who “went about doing good” and who attracts everyone to himself, saying “And if I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all things to myself.” Those below strive upward to imitate the goodness of those above and those above shower down this desired goodness on those below.
This is what we call the communion of saints; it is also the deepest movement of the universe under God. This is what Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” In the face of all this we can see how much more effective example is over mere words; in fact, words have little to do with any of it, because in Christ even the Word has become the supreme example.
Sometimes, though, the effort to give good example can become stilted or anxious. This is because we become self-conscious; we begin to attribute to ourselves the example we give, and forget that in imitating the goodness of God and his holy ones, we are to be like little children, who in playing games in the yard unselfconsciously imitate what they have learned from the example of those who are older.
No one likes a preachy prude or a self-righteous perfectionist. In order really to give good example we have to be aware that all the goodness we can convey is simply a gift from God. It is not a test or a skill or a profession: it is just the task of one of God’s grateful children who by being so can also make other children happy.
This is why the holiness of so many saints did not challenge or discourage those less perfect than they, but rather in its simple, unselfconscious way drew them to love God and receive more willingly his gifts. This is a very important aspect of our spiritual life, especially if we have the care of others.
After all, two things can happen: we ourselves can fail to give good example or our good example can be ignored or rejected. If we in all simplicity and thankfulness regard the whole thing as a receiving and giving of a gift from God, we can simply pick up and persevere, since none of it depends on us, but it all comes from him, “the giver of every good gift.” To the degree that we attribute any of it to ourselves, we will become discouraged at our weakness or another’s and run the risk of not persevering in giving God’s good gifts by good example. This is the devil’s main strategy: to make it all seem pointless because of all that is bad in us or others.
The Lord Jesus confronted this temptation of discouragement in the Garden of Gethsemani, and he did not give in. And so of this supreme example St. Peter says: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His footsteps.” May we love the beautiful example of the Lord’s goodness, shining around us in the example of those who follow in his footsteps, and may it please him to make us imitate them with grateful hearts.