Appreciating the Ordinary

(Homily for Thirteenth Sunday, Year B)

Today, after almost four months, we return to Sundays of Ordinary Time. I hope you don't think I'm an old shoe, but I would like to argue that even tho ordinary does mean usual, common, even unexceptional; it can sometimes be the best. I remember the most wonderful meal I ever had. After an all night bus trip, my companions and I arrived at a small mountain village. For breakfast this marvellous Indian lady served us a bowl of soup containing a medium size potato and a chicken leg. It steamed in the cold morning air. I sipped some of the broth which was so delicious I asked the cook what she seasoned it with. She replied, "salt." Well, there were some green bits which I took for basil, but I was too intent on savoring it to ask more questions. My fellow travelers were also concentrating on enjoying the magnificent soup she ladled out of her caldron. In one way it was a quite simple meal, but its very ordinariness made it the best.

What makes the ordinary "good"? Etymology gives us a hint. The word ordinary comes from the Latin ordo which simply means order. The goodness of the ordinary comes from being properly ordered. As in the example above, food is good if ordered to warming and nourishing our bodies. When it departs from that purpose, it may still be tasty, even exciting, but it loses its basic goodness. Our first reading today tells us all of God's creatures are wholesome. (Wisdom 1:14) Solomon goes on to say there is no destructive drug among them. Consider perhaps the worst one in our society - cocaine. It comes from the coca leaf which, in its natural state, makes an excellent tea. Also it can be chewed to forestall minor pains and hunger. I used the coca leaf often when I was in Peru and it caused no problem for me or others because our use was properly ordered.

Solomon acknowledges the fundamental goodness of creation, but also tries to explain how evil entered into what should have been a paradise. He identifies the cause as the "devil's envy." (Wis. 2:23) We might be surprised to hear that the root cause of evil is envy. On one level it seems normal, even complementary. If I see a young guy with a full head of hair, I sometimes say, "Man, life is so unjust. How come you've so much hair and me none?" But there is a darker side to envy. It means being dissatisfied to such a degree that we wish harm on the person we perceive as favored. Cain envied Abel so much he killed his own brother. Maybe none of us has gone that far but we must admit envy causes terrible problems.

Let me use the previous example to describe this evil of envy. It is the difference between enjoying a refreshing cup of coca tea and snorting cocaine. Do you see what I am saying? One is a natural gift from God; the other is the devil's invention to bring anguish. It is healthy to desire a modest amount of this world's goods, but envy causes one to resent the other person simply because he has more. The same principle is at work in the man who lusts after many women instead of being grateful to God for reserving one special girl for him. I've heard of people who when they get a box of chocolate will bite a small sample from each one. Not only do they ruin the candy for anyone else, but they destroy their own sense of enjoyment. Such is the trap of envy.

It is significant, as we return to ordinary Sundays, that we hear about Jesus doing miracles of restoration. He heals a woman afflicted twelve years with a hemorrhage. He gives life back to a young girl. Notice that Jesus' miracles do not involve wealth, fame, success, but the ability to enjoy the common benefits of life. A while back I was talking with a single mom who suffered a difficult financial setback. It broke my heart as it did hers. But I also reminded her that she still had what was most valuable, her beautiful little daughter. When the synagogue official approached Jesus, he would have given all his wealth to have his child back. Jesus did not require it, but said, "Talitha koum. Little girl, I say to you, arise!"

Do we recognize it is Jesus who sustains the lives of our children at every moment? We of course want to give them good things, but we ignore the best because it appears unexceptional or ordinary. The finest gift is to push aside envy and teach our children the joy of a grateful heart.

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From the Archives:

Thirteenth Sunday, Year B, 2012: Excel in Every Respect
2009: For Your Love and Fidelity
2006: When God Seems Distant
2000: Appreciating the Ordinary

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