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One of the fables of Aesop tells the story of a man, a boy, and a donkey. An elderly man was traveling with a boy and a donkey. As they walked through a village, the man was leading the donkey and the boy was walking behind. The townspeople said the old man was a fool for not riding, so to please them he climbed up on the animal’s back. When they came to the next village, the people said the old man was cruel to let the child walk while he enjoyed the ride. So, to please them, he got off and set the boy on the animal’s back and continued on his way. In the third village, people accused the child of being lazy for making the old man walk, and the suggestion was made that they both ride. So the man climbed on and they set off again. In the fourth village, the townspeople were indignant at the cruelty to the donkey because he was made to carry two people. So the boy and the man strapped the donkey to a pole by his feet and began to carry the donkey. Unfortunately, when they came to a bridge, the boy tripped, sending the donkey into the river below where he drowned.
We would like to say that we aren’t like this, always trying to please others, but there is something in our makeup that seeks the approval of others. So often, we have this fear of failing in the eyes of those around. That’s the reason why, when you do something really well, it’s not the 100 compliments that keep you up at night, but that one criticism can keep your mind running until 4:00 a.m. We seek the approval of others, and in doing so, we become hypocrites (the origin of that word means ‘actor’). We become actors on a stage and our lives become spectacles and productions for others, seeking the audience’s approval. That’s what Jesus was speaking about in our Gospel.
Jesus said, the hypocrites/actors like to practice their piety, their holiness before others, as on a stage, “so that they may be praised by others… so that they may be seen by others… so as to show others” how holy they are. But Jesus tells us that when we practice our holiness there should only be one who observes us, and that is God. When we perform as actors, we will very often end up not only carrying the donkey, but looking like one as well. Whereas, when we practice our faith before God alone, he observes our efforts—feeble as they may be—and rewards us.
My friend Thomas à Kempis writes, “Who are you, then, that you should be afraid of mortal man? Today he is here, tomorrow he is not seen. Fear God and you will not be afraid of the terrors of men. What can anyone do to you by word or injury? He hurts himself rather than you, and no matter who he may be he cannot escape the judgment of God. Keep God before your eyes, therefore, and do not quarrel with peevish words.”
During this Season of Lent, do not be concerned about the opinions and actions of others. In faith, seek only God’s approval, follow the narrow path that God has placed you on, and humbly walk in his ways.
Let us pray: Lord God, Father of mercies, to You we look, in You we trust. Bless and sanctify our souls with heavenly benediction, so that we may become Your holy dwelling and the seat of Your eternal glory. And in this temple of Your dignity let nothing be found that might offend Your majesty. In Your great goodness, and in the multitude of Your mercies, look upon us and listen to the prayers of Your poor servants exiled from You in the region of the shadow of death. Protect and preserve the souls of Your poor servants among the many dangers of this corruptible life, and direct us by Your accompanying grace, through the ways of peace, to the land of everlasting light. Amen (The Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 59)