30 August 2010

The Greatness of Humility

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 29 August 2010

Readings: Wis 9:13-18; Ps. 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11; Phile 9b, 12-17; Lk 14:25-33

The Gospel setting and parable this Sunday pertain to banquets, a setting quite familiar to most, if not all, of us. Social life is defined, and social connections are formed and strengthened during banquets – from small family dinners to big feasts where the entire barangay (and beyond) is invited. Parish and barrio fiestas span our entire social and ecclesial calendar. No wonder the banquet setting didn't escape the use of Jesus as a medium of instruction on Christian life. And then, of course, the fount and summit of Christian life is the banquet of the Eucharist.

What Jesus teaches in this passage goes beyond table manners or respect for hierarchy and social status (there is plenty of that already, then and now). Rather, He asks that we examine our inner dispositions. In particular, He stresses the virtue of humility. The First Reading from the Book of Sirach speaks about it most succinctly.

Sir 3,17: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.”

Teaching humility. My moral theology professor, Fr. James F. Keenan, SJ, in his book "Virtues for Ordinary Christians", introduces the chapter on self-esteem with a simple case he presented to a high school freshman religion class.

“You’ve just pitched a great game. Your neighbor comes up to you and says ‘You pitched a great game’. What is the humble answer?” Hands went up. One student says: "Ah, I was just lucky today. I’m not that good." The hands went down. The students knew the right answer had been given. But he said: "That’s a lie. That’s not humility." Another student ventured: "I’d tell my neighbor that the whole team was good." "Why", he asked. "Because I wouldn’t be humble taking the credit." He shrugged off his response. Several attempts followed. Finally, he said: "The humble answer is to say ‘Thank you’". With that answer, those 14 year olds now knew why their parents occasionally joked about studying religion with a Jesuit.

But before we got to read the book and the story, he tried the same exercise with us, students of theology, this time using the setting of "splendidly done group report". We pretty much gave the same answers, and got to the same conclusion about studying moral theology with Jesuits.

Defining humility. In the same book, Keenan defines it this way: “Humility acknowledges the truth about oneself; it is not about lying or denial, but rather about the ability to determine whether what others say about oneself is true or not. As a matter of virtue, humility is the mean between two vices. Humility is found between pride, where one thinks oneself greater than one really is, and self-pity, where one thinks oneself worse.”

Self-esteem and humility. “Self-esteem is not humility, but the virtue that makes humility possible. If humility concerns how we interact with others, self-esteem pertains to how we live with ourselves.” Lack of self-esteem leads to insecurity and self-hate. Too much stress on building self-esteem leads to pride and the culture of the self. A healthy self-esteem ensures humility. Humility keeps self-esteem healthy.

Sir 3,18: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

We are called to be humble. Here's a story: "A small religious congregation was promoting vocations to a group of young people. The vocation promoter gave this pitch: “Every religious congregation has a charism of their own, something that distinguishes them. The Jesuits are proud of their ingenuity. The Dominicans are proud of their scholarship. The Franciscans are proud of their poverty. The Benedictines are proud of their stability. And we are proud of our humility.”

There is a lesson here for those who love and serve, those who do good deeds. Jesus' advise to His dinner host not to invite close family and friends and wealthy neighbors to dinner may be a hyperbole. But it does get the message across, that is, we do not stop short at loving the neighbor and caring for those in need. We also need to check whether our good deeds are accompanied with humility. For this is what Christian perfection is about.

Why do I love some people more than others? What is my motivation for serving? Is it merely about investing in social capital? Is it about making a good name for myself. Is it purely out of love?

To paraphrase St. Paul’s famous line on love in 1 Cor:
"I may love with the passion of saints,
I may serve with the patience of angels,
but if I do not have humility, my loving is imperfect.
I am bell calling attention to myself.
I am a lamp who thinks he is better than the sun.
In the end, I am but serving the cult of the self."

When we are humbled. What if certain circumstances in life humble us? What is the Christian thing to do when going through a humbling experience?

Last Monday, August 23, a dismissed police officer took hostage a tourist bus and made a stand-off in Quirino Grandstand in Manila. It resulted in the death of the hostage taker and eight hostages – all of them Hong Kong citizens – and in a great humbling experience for our people.

For many Filipinos, the sense of hope and pride, as a new administration takes over with its promise of reforms and better governance, burst as if a bubble as practically all major media organization covered the bungled negotiation and rescue attempts. We understand the anger and disappointment of the Chinese people over the handling of the case, but it became an even more humbling experience to our nation when criticisms against the police and concerned agencies spilled over to unjust and irrational hatred, threatening the job security and safety of Filipinos working in Hong Kong.

To a lesser extent, the exploit of our Bicolana candidate in the recent Miss Universe pageant, Ms. Ma. Venus Raj, is another humbling experience. Many of us know her as a bright and articulate girl. That is why it pains us to see her now infamous "major, major" answer to a surprise personal question from one of the judges turned into a fodder for jokes. Though it looks like she is currently handling it well.

How do we deal with humbling experiences?

a. We practice humility as a virtue. We stand by the truth of ourselves: who we are; what circumstances are beyond our control; our culpability, if any; and our dignity. The unfortunate hostage-taking is inexcusable, but is the work of a misguided individual, an isolated incident and not indicative of our national character. We mourn with those who mourn, we accept that mistakes were committed, but it doesn't mean we have to carry the burden of national guilt and be predisposed targets of bigotry and prejudice.

b. We remember that God Himself has already shown us the way. Through Jesus Christ God has chosen to humble Himself. St. Paul counsels us in Phil 2,8: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

c. We learn from the experience. We determine our mistakes. As far as the hostage-taking is concerned, we call for fair investigations and necessary reforms. We can, as a nation, rise from the experience tested and shaken, but stronger and wiser, and with greater resolve to achieve our dreams.

Through Christ we learn that the path to glory is best travelled with humility; that the humiliation and suffering of good persons are not in vain; that love triumphs in the end.

d. We trust in the Lord. The power of God is revealed not only when he prevents bad things from happening, but more so when he makes good things come out even of things evil. Rom 8,31 assures us: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"

So be humble and let God be.

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