‘Worthiness’ and Christianity

In the Catholic Mass, most people at a certain point say

“I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

Here, to the extent people think about it, they probably conceive of ‘roof’ as meaning the roof of one’s mouth, as it is said just before eating bread that (at least) symbolizes the opening up of one to having God enter into one’s life (both at the moment and in general, hence the usefulness of repeating this action of the mind-heart as an aspect of spiritual training).

My guess is that most people saying this do not realize it is a paraphrase of part of the Gospels (Matthew 8). Here, a Roman soldier is talking to Jesus, and says

“I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but say the word, and my servant shall be healed.”

The key change is servant -> soul. We can divide the Mass sentence version into two parts. First the ‘I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof’ and second ‘say the word, and my soul shall be healed’.

For the first part, what is going on in the original Gospel situation? This is usually described as the soldier displaying great humility and spiritual awareness. I have to wonder, though, if the soldier is displaying a knowledge of Jewish ritual cleanliness rules, which are things like wash your hands before eating, don’t touch corpses, don’t kill cats (which in turn feed on vermin, a key vector of disease in cities), and so on. A key part of these laws seems to be (consciously or not) to prevent infectious disease, and part of this was not entering houses of people who weren’t also abiding by these rules (this idea appears again in Acts 10). This makes sense if you’re trying to avoid infectious disease, just as not sending your child to school can help to avoid the latest round of the flu, cold, and so on.

So, according to notions of ritual cleanliness, Jews were not to enter the houses of non-Jews, in order to prevent the spread of infectious disease. If this is at play, the soldier might be referencing this when he says “I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof.” In other words, “I am a non-Jew, so according to your rules of ritual cleanliness, you’re not supposed to enter the house.” If so, this doesn’t have to do with the soldier’s worth so much as with ritual cleanliness rules.

Regardless, the emphasis in the Gospel passage seems to be on the second part (the first sets it up), which is “Say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” The basic point is that of a trusting relationship between the soldier and God (and the role of the Christ in mediating this) and not a comment on the soldier’s worthiness.

Indeed, the core message of Christianity seems to be opposite of what one might initially get from the paraphrase that is used in Mass. 1. In Christianity, Christians are sons or daughters of God. It is perhaps difficult to hear this language in the way a typical ancient listener would – sons or daughters of the gods were very important people, beautiful, wise, great warriors, graceful, and so on, with a great deal of ‘worth’, as far as these things go. Think Hercules, say, supposedly a child of Zeus (etymologically close to deus, the Latin word for God), or Achilles, child of the nymph Thetis. 2. Moreover, God is not just one’s spiritual Father according to Christianity but ‘Abba’, a familiar term for father suggesting a close relationship. 3. Finally, it is irrelevant whether one is ‘worthy’ or not of having God enter into one’s own body-mind, as God (the Holy Spirit, and so on) is transformative, and this transformation according to Christianity is of course what God wants (i.e., theosis).

This is not to ignore the important points of emptying oneself out, getting beyond fear coming from the ego, getting a better approximation of one’s own influence (i.e., humility), and so on – all useful practices. If this is what the phraseology in the Mass accomplishes, then that’s fine and useful, but it’s important not to go on and make an error which contradicts the core of Christianity because of it. In a way, there is a useful tension between these concepts in Christianity, but I find it is easy for people to err on both sides. One has incredible worth and one should be humble and align oneself with God’s will – the balance is key here.

So, my guess is that we have what is for many people some misleading wording at work in the Catholic Mass at this point.

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