01 September 2013

A Lesson in Humility

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 1 September 2013

Readings: Sir 3,17-18,20,28-29; Ps 68,4-5,6-7,10-11; Heb 12,18-19,22-24a; Mt 11,29ab

Our First Reading this Sunday from the Book of Sirach begins with these words: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” In the Gospel reading, Jesus used the occasion of a banquet and the way guests were behaving, choosing for themselves places of honor at the table, to drive home a lesson in humility.

What does it mean to be humble, and how important is this virtue in Christian life?

1. To be humble means to keep ourselves grounded.

The root of the word comes from the Latin humus, which means soil. What the virtue of humility develops in us is how to keep our feet firmly on the ground, that is how to be secure in our self-identity and authentic in our self-expressions. 

My professor in moral theology, Fr. James Keenan, SJ, in his book "Virtues for Ordinary Christians", 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.”

When Jesus cautioned his audience about reserving for themselves places of honor at the banquet table, he was not merely taking about table etiquette. He was talking about staying grounded, keeping it real, not thinking too highly about oneself. C.S. Lewis famously stated: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

Today, we may think most of us have already come to accept this practical advice. Some have even mastered the practice. Public figures, especially, would want to show that they are in solidarity with the masses. Coming from humble origins and rising from the ranks has become a badge of honor. People reward with approval those who visit and support orphanages and homes for the aged, those who are respectful and humble in their use of words, and appreciate those who use self-depreciating humor.

However, we also have to be wary about mistaking mere political correctness or good PR for true humility. For even now, society has its own “places of honor”: the discreet yet distinctive power table at parties, VIP rooms, and exclusive enclaves. These may also manifest even in our choice of conversations or company that excludes certain people in our workplaces, schools, and communities.

2. To be humble is the first step in walking with God.

Micah 6:8 reminds us what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with God. Before we can talk about committing to righteousness and justice, the first disposition a disciple needs to learn is humility – which means accepting first the truth of ourselves: our giftedness and weakness, our strengths and inadequacies.

The great Greek philosopher Socrates would usually initiate his new students into his teaching style by asking them to define something, and then keep asking them more probing questions until they finally say they really don’t know at all. Then he would say, now we can begin learning for “true wisdom is in knowing that you don’t know.”

In Mt 9,13, Jesus says: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners”. Who are the righteous? They are the ones who feel self-satisfied with their moral and spiritual state, and feel no more need for conversion. Now, who are the sinners? They are the ones who recognize their faults and failures, and acknowledge their sinfulness. In the same verse, Jesus also says: “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.” Between the two, who is most receptive to the grace that Jesus offers? The humble sinner recognizes his need for God’s mercy, while the self-righteous feels secure in the merits of his own sacrifice.

3. To be humble is to be exalted.

Jesus teaches us in the Gospel reading today that “every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The First Reading also has this to say: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

To understand these statements, it may be helpful to look at an example of how to fall from God’s favor. But first I have to ask: “What do you think was the first sin committed in all of creation?” The answer: it is not the sin of Adam and Eve, rather it is that of their tempter – the sin of pride. Satan, the deceiver, started as an angel, and one of the more favored ones too. His name, Lucifer, means “bearer of light”. But he became so full of himself, and too proud to serve humanity in God’s behalf, that when given a choice he decided to choose himself over God’s will. And so he has fallen from grace, and has made it his mission since then to lure humanity into thinking they have no need of God’s grace as well.

That is why, when Jesus came to save us, He chose the way that is most opposite to pride: humility. The Letter to the Philippians (2,6-9) sums up profoundly this way of heroic humility: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus 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. Because of this, God greatly exalted him.”

Why do we need to practice humility? Because as Christians, we follow the way of Christ, and His way begins with first possessing humility. To love and serve humbly is to be exalted by God, for by doing so, we reflect the light of Christ to others, we become witnesses to the kind of life God has prepared for His people – authentic and free, and meaningfully happy. To be exalted is to be able to let others see God’s love and joy through us.