Grace and Self-Esteem

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Instead, whenever you give a reception, invite poor people, crippled people, lame people, blind people. And you will be happy that they are not able to repay you, for you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
Luke 14:13-14

There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.
Philippians 2:3-4

A few days ago I was walking through a small town with a friend when a young high school student stopped us to ask if we could take a few minutes to participate in her school psychology project. She had two questions, our responses to which she she wanted to video record. The first was “What is self-esteem?,” and the second was “How important do you think self-esteem is?.” Clearly the “common sense” answer to the second question is that we consider self-esteem, as we understand it, to be central to our sense of well-being. We fear that any experience of lack of acceptance by others, loss, or failure can permanently scar us or diminish our personal development.

Today’s readings invite us to reconsider, in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, our own lived understanding of self-esteem. In order to appreciate how “counter-cultural” is the view of Jesus in this regard, it helps us to understand something of the traditional religious context of his time regarding the “lame, blind, and crippled.” In his commentary on Luke’s gospel, Luke, Timothy Johnson writes:

The lame, blind, and crippled, in turn, are excluded from the priesthood by Lev 21:17-21. At Qumran, these disqualifications were extended to exclusion from the Holy War of the end time and even from participation in the eschatological banquet. Note that Luke uses “poor” as a blanket term of all those marginalized people. (p. 225)

In a rather radical re-orientation of our common social understandings, Jesus says that we who gather in memory of him do so as a gathering not of the socially esteemed but rather of the marginalized. We do not belong to his company, at his reception, despite our poverty but rather because of it. When the measure of human significance and worth is based only at the bodily and functional level, anything that impedes our physical and functionally effective appeal to others and society becomes a source of self-depreciation. Many years ago, a Brother who had served for many years as a professor at a university and who was reaching the age of mandatory retirement said to me: “When we get too old to work, you should just take us out to a back field and shoot us.” In the very functional societies of the West such a sense of self, while not always expressed so starkly, is pervasive. As the great scholar of religions Huston Smith has pointed out, we can only bear the thought of aging by creating the myth of “golden years” of continued physical attractiveness and strong functional capacities. Jesus makes very clear, however, that our value and significance lies in a life of transcendent potency that is manifest but not contained in our external appearance and functional effectiveness.

Today’s passage from Philippians affords a means of practice that can help us discover and experience this deeper life in us. It suggests that as long as we focus on ourselves, on our gifts, on our place in the world, on our own value and significance that we shall never come to know our deeper spiritual identity. What we tend to think as “self-esteem” is how we see ourselves as equal to and better than others. To know our true life, the life of the Risen Jesus in us, requires that we consistently “consider the other person to be better than” ourselves. This means awakening to every movement of competition and envy in us. It means learning to give thanks for the life and abilities of others, especially when we experience a movement toward depreciating them. Finally, it asks of us to do our best at each given moment of encounter with others to become a servant of their own unique life and call. In this way, as the “self” we have formed by a lifetime of comparison and competition begins to die, the light of “eternal life” increasingly shines through us. In our life together, community begins to replace collectivity and ecclesia replaces hierarchy.

In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that as long as our relationships and our societies consist in mutual gratification, they will always be built on the sand of the “vicissitudes of the ego,” on our life of craving and aversion. When we become empty enough of ourselves to experience the grace that gives us life and gathers us, then we shall experience a communion that depends not on our own very limited capacities and ego identities but rather rests in the Risen One who is our eternal life.

Let us then humbly and pragmatically put into practice the advice St. Bernard rightly gives in his sermon on the Canticle, “I do not want you to compare yourself to those greater or lesser than you, to a particular few, not even to a single person, etc.” for we do not even know for sure what state we are in or what shall become of us tomorrow–much less can we know the truth about others. We are all created by one creator, who establishes the members of the Body of Christ not according to our judgments but according to his own knowledge.

Guigo de Ponte, On Contemplation, III, 18

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