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HUBRIS & NEMESIS

A Prayer to Know and Love You More
July 15, 2020
Love Knows Rest
July 16, 2020

Homily for 15 July 2020, 15th Week in Ordinary Time, Matthew 11:25-27 (Feast of St. Bonaventure)

“…although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.”
When I was in first year College, I remember learning two important Greek words in my subject in Classical Greek Literature from the American Jesuit, Fr Joseph Galdon, one of my favorite teachers. The words were HUBRIS and NEMESIS. Roughly, their equivalent terms in English would be ARROGANCE and DOWNFALL.
I also learned how the two words are related to each other. In Greek mythology, HUBRIS referred to excessive pride that supposedly offends the gods and is the common reason for downfall. It was portrayed as a character defect in human beings. Every human being was supposedly susceptible to this disease. Nemesis, on the other hand, stood for a mythological deity—the god of retribution, the one who is ready to strike down those who are supposedly afflicted with hubris.
In the Bible we hear about the inter-relatedness of hubris and nemesis in Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, and arrogance before a fall.” The best example of this in Judaeo-Christian tradition is supposedly the Sin of Satan that led to his downfall. Even in the Qur’an, which are so closely related to the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, we find a similar reference to the sin of Satan. Although he was created ahead of Adam, he was supposedly commanded by God to bow in reverence before Adam. But Satan, we are told, refused to do so because he felt it was below his dignity. By then he had been corrupted by the thought that he was a more dignified creature than the humans, so why should he bow before them?
This sin of pride, apparently, had caused his downfall. From then on, he would make it his mission to cause human beings to fall, if only to prove his point with God. How would he do it? By tempting us to imitate him—to behave like him. That like Satan we also become “wise in our own estimation”, so that we eventually experience our own downfall.
This seems to be the main theme of our readings today, namely, that the most common pitfall of human knowledge is the tendency to develop arrogance and conceit, to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as wiser than God. Ironically, it when we become excessively proud about our human intelligence that we actually turn stupid and find ourselves on the path of self-destruction.
St. Paul expresses this very well in 1 Corinthians 1:19, where he is quoting from Isaiah 29:14, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.” If we keep reading until v.16 of the same chapter, we hear the prophet saying, “Your stupidity is as though the potter were taken to be the clay: as though what is made should say of its maker, “I have nothing to do with him!”Or the vessel should say of the potter, “He does not understand.”
This is the same tone arrogance that we hear in our first reading about the King of Assyria who does not realize that he was merely being used by God as an instrument to punish Israel. He became so wise in his own estimation. In Tagalog we’d say, “Lumaki ang ulo.” (His head has gotten so puffed up.) What would God do to teach the Assyrians a lesson? He would make them suffer a terrible humiliation.
They became so overconfident after their success in conquering Samaria and Damscus, they thought it was going to be as easy with Jerusalem. Suddenly they were struck by an epidemic, just when they were ready to take over Jerusalem. They were forced to retreat, not because of any military miscalculation but because of a plague.
You know, I had goosebumps while reading this little detail in the history of the Siege of Sennacherib. God has a way of making the arrogant eat the dust, the way he struck down Saul on his way to Damascus.
Isn’t this exactly what we are now experiencing with the Covid 19? We have already sent human beings to the moon. We are already replacing human workers with robots. Lately, several countries including US, China and UAE are supposedly sending people to Mars. And yet, we still do not know how to deal with Covid 19. In spite of all the scientific and technological advances, we are rendered totally helpless by a microscopic virus that has already infected more than 13 M people around the world in just 7 months, and killed half a million people so far despite the lockdowns. If it mutates into something more deadly, who of us will survive it?
It has shut down the economies of almost all nations around the world, and has forced us to live like rats in our homes. Did you get to see that meme that is going around in the social media that says, “2020 is really the Year of the Rat. We are all in hiding. We only go out to get food. We store food to eat later. And when people come close to us, we run away.” Imagine super-intelligent creatures called human beings suddenly behaving like rats?
What follows HUBRIS is indeed NEMESIS. This has never been truer than now. We have forgotten that we are actually latecomers in the evolution process. That before we populated the earth, the world was populated by dinosaurs. They were such huge creatures but, with one strike of a comet from the outer space, the earth’s climate suddenly changed and the ice age was triggered, so that the whole species of dinosaurs was wiped out and went extinct. You don’t think that can happen to us human beings too? One little virus can wipe us out. One little stupid nuclear war among ourselves could change the earth’s climate and trigger a total reconfiguration of the planet earth, minus human beings.
I suggest that we read Psalm 90 and take its reminder seriously. It says, “You turn humanity back into dust, and say, “Return, you children of Adam!” A thousand years in your eyes are merely a day gone by. Before a watch passes in the night, you wash them away; They sleep, and in the morning they sprout again like grass. In the morning it blooms only to pass away; in the evening it is wilted and withered… our life is over like a sigh. Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone… (In the end it says,) Teach us to number our days aright, so that we may gain wisdom of heart…”
I wish to believe that this is the kind of wisdom that Jesus in our Gospel is speaking about. It is not all really about the human knowledge of the clever and the learned that often leads to pride and arrogance. St Paul says it so well in 1 Corinthians 1:25 “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” This is the wisdom that Jesus says God revealed to the childlike. Again, St. Paul rubs it in when he says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something…” St Therese of Lisieux had a name for the way of Jesus: “The Little Way, or the Way of Littleness.”
I am therefore not surprised that the truly great people in this world are the ones who are humble, who don’t regard themselves too highly, those who, to borrow the words of Proverbs, are “not wise in their own estimation.” Remember St. Thomas Aquinas when he said to Bro. Reginald, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
They say the Homo Sapiens survived and dominated the world because of our intelligence. The dinosaur supposedly went extinct because it was huge but had a very small brain.
We managed to replace the dinosaurs because, they say, among all animals, we have the largest brain. Not only are we capable of knowing, we can know about knowing itself. Is that it? But have we forgotten that it is also our big and hyperactive brains that have made us so clever as to exploit and abuse the world and its resources beyond restoration, or to fight each other and design weapons for each other’s ultimate decimation?
I dare say we’re wrong. It is Satan who deluded us into believing that our big brains are the key to our survival. No. The true key to our survival as a human species is not our big brains but our big hearts. It is rather our capacity to care and have compassion for each other, our capacity to love unconditionally. This is what truly makes us strong. Our true instinct is not to kill or destroy but to be ready to die for each other and offer our lives as an ultimate oblation for the beloved.
We were endowed with a big heart so that we can accommodate each other, so that we are able to build families, communities, societies in which the rule is not survival of the fittest but survival of the weakest. And the image of the highest form of evolution that we can ever reach is Jesus—the new Adam, the new humanity that reflects divinity.

 

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