“Hey, Father Al, how many languages do you speak?”
“Well, let’s see… English, of course, and French, and Spanish.” So far this was all true. I’m fluent in French, and I celebrate mass every Sunday in passable Spanish. I continued, “And Latin and Greek.” I can stumble along after a fashion reading Latin, and can read the Greek New Testament if I have a dictionary nearby, but I certainly don’t “speak” either of them. Then I added, “…and German.” This was a real stretch, since I had only one year of it many years ago and know only some basic tourist phrases and enough vocabulary to guess at the meaning of German book titles. By no stretch of the imagination do I speak German.
“Wow! That’s six languages!”
I’m always very conscious of the impression I’m making on people around me. This is a good thing when I’m celebrating mass or giving a talk or standing in front of a roomful of students. But there’s no doubt that at other times I’m too concerned about making a good impression just so that people will think well of me. I suppose a lot of us are like that. The trait has been plaguing us for thousands of years. As far back as 2,500 years ago Aesop poked fun at folks like me in a humorous but tragic fable, "The Ox and the Frog:"
THE OX AND THE FROG
"Father," said a little frog to the big frog sitting by the side of a pool, "I just saw a terrible monster! It was as big as a mountain, with horns on its head, and a long tail, and it had hoofs divided in two."
"Tut, tut, child," said the old frog, "that was only Farmer White's ox. And he really isn't all that big. He may be a little bit taller than me, but I could easily make myself just as wide. Watch!" So he puffed himself out, and puffed himself out, and puffed himself out.
"Was he as big as this?" asked the older frog.
"Oh, much bigger than that," said the younger.
In response, the old one puffed himself up even more, and asked the young one if the ox was as big as that.
"Bigger, Father, bigger," came the reply.
So the frog took more deep breaths, and puffed, and puffed, and swelled, and swelled. Then finally he said, "I'm sure the ox wasn't as big as this."
But at that moment he burst.
The writers of the New Testament had a word that describes perfectly my behavior with those students in the lunchroom: the Greek word for “vain:” huperēphanos, (hoop-er-ay'-fahn-os). It’s made up of two Greek words: huper, "over, above" and phainō, “to appear.” So this adjective “arrogant, haughty, proud,” means literally wanting to “appear to be above” everyone else.
Some of us Christians, forgetting that our greatness comes not from ourselves but from the God who loves us and died to save us, spend our lives competing and comparing, and teaching our children to do the same. Not satisfied with just looking good, we make every effort look better than those around us. Some bizarre and even appalling behavior – from spending more than we can afford on a car or clothes, to sending a phony college transcript as part of a job application – is caused by the need to look better than others.
2. Jesus' invitation "… learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew. 11:29) challenges us to let go of our misguided efforts at greatness. Are there specific situations in which you are tempted you to puff yourself up? Are there certain people you compete against, trying to "appear above" them? Have these temptations changed over the course of time?