23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time — September 4, 2011
Ezekiel 33.7-9 | Psalm 95 | Romans 13.8-10 | Matthew 18.10-20

Ralph Himsl

August 29, 2011

In an earlier column on these pages, it proved desirable to refer to the work of the Anglo-American poet and 1948 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature T.S. Eliot, specifically, his words in Four Quartets, "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

Those words read well and lofty. While I often measure the thought they express and admire the insight, my own day to day encounter with humility and wisdom has a simple, homely form.

It happens this way. In something like boyish excitement, I eagerly shared a discovery with a friend, "I found a fact that will surprise you, something you would like to know.

"Car licence plates are not made in prisons as we had long thought, but by a manufacturer in Amherst, N.S. Its website tells of the pride the company has in its product."

Unaffected by this report, my friend replied, "I knew that." He sips his coffee. And I - I take another step toward humility - an inch closer to Eliot's wisdom.

Today's reading from Matthew's Gospel sets me up for yet another such lesson. Many of us have heard someone expostulate at the sight of a certain behaviour of another person - a behaviour that takes them by surprise.

"What in the name of God do you think you're doing?" Or, "What in Christ's name did you do that for?"

Perhaps we have said those words ourselves. Not uncommon parts of our speech, but still seeming slightly blasphemous. I wince just at the writing of them. Even today, in this time of less inhibited use of language, their appearance in a conversation makes a person squirm.


But a right reading of the Gospel for this Sunday relieves this discomfort though it leaves an interesting puzzle. The relief first: we find it in the last 15 words of the excerpt: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them."

We have, all of us, recognized this promise of Jesus and made use of it most familiarly when we pray and act "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

But what about the "interesting puzzle" the Gospel reading leaves, namely, how did the noble sentiment of naming Christ's presence in a group of two or three morph into the irreverent sounding "What in Christ's name prompted you to . . . "?

People say that less as a question seeking information than out of reverent sentiment based on Jesus' promise but rather as an indignant challenge to someone's good sense.


When my friend heard the explanation of the meaning of the passage, he said, "I knew that."

As to the "interesting puzzle," he said, "Beats me!" With enough thinking, I might solve the puzzle myself. If I should do so, I'll share my solution with him. He will say, "I knew that," and I will move another inch toward wisdom.

(Ralph Himsl: luimeme@telusplanet.net)