Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on November 4, 2017 at 4:00pm and November 5, 2017 at 8:00am and 10:30am Masses
I bought a new watch this week, not because I needed a new watch, but because I needed a new watchband, and for whatever reason a watchband costs as much as a new watch, so I got the whole watch. It even came with a 10-year battery. All for the unbelievably low price of $17. I even saved 5% because I used a Target Red Card. It was a great deal.
Imagine my surprise this week when I saw the story that Paul Newman’s watch sold at auction for $17 million, the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch. $17 million! Now that is truly unbelievable for a 50-year old used watch. You literally could have bought one million copies of my $17 watch for that price. Of course, my watch is not a Rolex and it has never been worn by Paul Newman. A Rolex watch is a status symbol, just like carrying a handbag made by Gucci or Louis Vuitton or driving an exotic car like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Status symbols attract attention to themselves and their owners.
In today’s gospel, Jesus calls out the scribes and Pharisees because of their status symbols: their titles of Rabbi, their places of honor at banquets, their seats of honor in the synagogues, and their tassels and phylacteries. Tassels and phylacteries were the Rolex watches of their day. They were worn by the scribes, Pharisees, and anyone else who wanted to show their devotion to God. Tassels were hung from the four corners of clothing to remind the wearer of the commandments. Phylacteries were small boxes that contained small rolled up scrolls of scripture verses. These boxes were worn in two places: on the head (much like today’s headlamps that help you to see) to remind the wearer that God’s Word should always be on their mind, and on the upper left arm (much like one of those phone holders people use jogging), next to the heart to remind the wearer that God’s Word should always be in their heart. In addition, the box on the arm was attached by a cord that wound down the arm all the way to the end of the middle finger to remind the wearer that God’s Word must also be carried out in how they lived their life.
It should be noted that Jesus was not condemning the practice of wearing tassels and phylacteries. As a devout and observant Jew, Jesus himself probably wore them. In fact, earlier in Matthew’s gospel when a woman wishes to touch Jesus that she might be healed, she reaches out and touches the tassel of his robe.
But the scribes and Pharisees had begun to forget the important symbolism of the tassels and phylacteries. They were not using them to remind of them of God’s commandments and God’s word. They used them as status symbols to attract attention to themselves. They lengthened their tassels and widened their phylacteries so that people would see them. “Look at me! See how important I am.” Jesus condemns the scribers and Pharisees because they cared so much about their status symbols, their titles, places of honor, and positions of status among the people. They were not setting a good example for the people. Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples to “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,” but he warns, “Do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Their symbols had become a sign of their position and not a sign of the God they represented. These devotionals had been reduced to status symbols.
Rolex watches are status symbols, but that $17 million Paul Newman Rolex was not really a status symbol. It was not gold. It had no diamonds. It was stainless steel and the band was leather. Except for the Rolex logo, you might have thought it was a Timex. But it was an important symbol Paul Newman. It was a gift from his wife, who got a huge discount on it because it was so plain nobody wanted to buy it. She gave it to him shortly after he became a racecar driver engraved with the words, “Drive carefully. Me.” He wore it every day for 20 years. Imagine a Rolex so humble that it could be worn every day!
That is what today’s gospel is about – being humble, having humility. Jesus wants the crowd and his disciples to be humble, to shun titles, to give attention to everyone because, “you are all brothers,” and most importantly to remember that “the greatest among you must be your servant.” Last week we heard Jesus say that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Humility involves putting God and our neighbors ahead of ourselves. It is not just having God’s Word in our heart and in our mind like the scribes and Pharisees or simply wearing it as a symbol like a tassel, phylacteries, a rosary bracelet, or a crucifix to attract attention. Our faith should never be reduced to a symbol of our status, but it must be put into action in our lives and in the world. Our Lord is asking us to live a humble lives of service where we give of ourselves and give our lives as a gift of love to God and to our neighbor.
Paul Newman wore that Rolex every day for 20 years. But one day when his daughter’s boyfriend came to pick her up for a date, Paul asked the young man why he was not wearing a watch and he said because he did not own one. Paul was very fond of him and so he took off his beloved watch and gave it to him as a gift right then and there. That seemingly small gesture became $17 million this past week when that young man, now an old man, sold it at auction! But that is what happens when we give seemingly small gifts to others out of love. God transforms them into so much more.
Not all of us have a Rolex watch, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Lamborghini, or other status symbol to give to others, but we all have received the gift of faith and the gift of God’s love. Our Lord is asking us to humbly share these gifts with others. It doesn’t have to be in a big way. Even the smallest of gifts of love and kindness that we share with others is transformed by God into something greater.
Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Our Lord humbled himself by dying on the cross, at the time the lowest symbol on earth, giving himself as a gift. The Father transformed that gift, exalting Jesus and the cross became the greatest symbol in history, a symbol of God’s love and the priceless gift of eternal life that is given to every servant of God who has humbled themselves that they might be exalted.
Rejoice and be glad!