Participating in the Spirit: Avoiding the Sins of Comparison
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
October 9, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on October 01, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2:1-11; and Matthew 21:28-32.

Our readings today are all about comparison. The Israelites don’t like the way God is doing things. Jesus points out that the Pharisees are comparing themselves to other people, in order to delude themselves into thinking that they are holier. Paul quotes a beautiful early Christian hymn, pointing out that Jesus did not equate himself with God.  

For most of us, comparison is a sin, or least, a near occasion of sin. When we compare ourselves with others, it often leads to gossip, speaking badly of others, and being judgmental.

Let us ask God for mercy and forgiveness as we battle our sins.

One son said he’d do the right thing, but didn’t, and the other said he wouldn’t do the right thing, but did. One talks the talk; the other walks the walk. But we should not choose either to talk the talk or to walk the walk. We should aspire both to talk the talk and to walk the walk. I presume that in the line of saints streaming into heaven, the tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees at the front of the line will be the ones who both talked the talk and walked the walk.  

The sin of the Pharisees was that they thought that they were holy by comparing themselves to tax collectors and prostitutes. We’ve all fallen into that sin on occasion. Because God doesn’t give us a report card on how we’re doing, we naturally wonder how we’re faring as Christian disciples. The easiest way to get data is to compare ourselves with others. But it’s a very bad way to evaluate our own discipleship! One of Satan’s most powerful tricks is to prey on our personal insecurities. When we use other people as a measuring stick to evaluate ourselves, we inevitably make ourselves miserable. Even if we think that we’re better than 90% of the people 90% of the time, we will fixate on that other 10%. Instead of deciding to work on our personal failings, we spend our energy being jealous of others who don’t have those problems. Simultaneously, the qualities that we can objectively measure – such as height or athletic ability – distract us from our discipleship.

One of the times we suffer the most with insecurity is during college. Trust me, I’m an expert – with 19 semesters of school to get two engineering degrees, a minor in music, and a master of divinity. When you declare your major in school, you have publicly announced what you want to do with your life, but you’re not actually working in your field yet. How can you know if you’ll be competent in the career you’ve chosen?  

I loved my first four years at the University of Rochester. They were among the happiest years of my life. My memories are of dappled sunlight shining through the autumn-colored leaves, tramping through crunchy fresh-fallen snow, and cherry trees that blossomed like clockwork during finals week. But my fifth and final year at Rochester – when I was in graduate school – was miserable. My memories of that year consist largely of me trudging back to my apartment at night in the rain, railing against God like the Israelites in Babylon: “It’s not fair!” Most of my classmates were 2nd-year PhD students taking one class, while I was taking four classes and had to TA a course to keep my stipend. Partway through the year, I finally realized: “all I can do is what I can do.” I wish I could say that this inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, but it actually came from going on job interviews with prospective employers.

Seminaries are breeding grounds for comparison and resentment. Think about it:  it’s a school filled with guys who realize that they’re not worthy to uphold the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Instead of preaching to an assembly of real people every day, they preach to a group of their fellow seminarians once or twice a semester. All those existential anxieties get transferred into those three minutes of preaching, and all the other seminarians offering feedback are wrestling with the desire to prop themselves up by putting down the student who is preaching.

So, when people of any age confess the sin of comparison – be it gossiping, bad-mouthing, or being judgmental – my advice is the same. We don’t do this with all people at all times about all things. What is the energy that causes me to resent this particular personality trait of this particular person in this particular setting? The energy to compare ourselves comes from within.  

So, when I realize that I’m judging someone, I take it to prayer. It’s not about the other person; it’s about me. What is my personal insecurity that I’m trying to ignore? Do I share a bad trait with this other person, and I’m distracting myself by focusing on their flaw rather than my own flaw? Does this person have a good quality that I wish I had, but I’m distracting myself by focusing on some unrelated flaw that this person has? Am I scared that I don’t fit in with the people I’m socializing with, so I join in bad-mouthing someone not present so I create a false sense of intimacy with the people around me?

Let us, like Jesus Christ, humble ourselves before God. Let us stand naked before God, acknowledging our own insecurities. Let us ask God to fill our emptiness with his unconditional love. Then, and only then, will we change our minds and believe that God loves us as we are.