THE VIRTUE OF HUMILITY
Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29; Heb 12:18-19,22-24; Luke 14:1,7-14
The key word that emerged today’s readings is HUMILITY. For this reason, we will focus our reflection on the virtue of humility. The first reading, from the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiastes), teaches us that if we perform our tasks with humility, those whom God accepts will love us. The greater we are the more we must humble ourselves so we will find favour in the sight of the Lord, (Sir 3:17-18). In the gospel, Jesus points to where guests should sit at the table when invited to a party. He uses an example of good manners at the table to draw attention to how honour is accredited in the Kingdom of God. This parable and the entire gospel talk to us about the need to be humble.
- HUMILITY IN THE BIBLE
There is a very popular proverb that goes thus: “Pride comes before a fall”. This famous saying is echoed widely in the entire Bible. In the Book of Proverbs, we read: “Before destruction, one’s heart is haughty”. This sentence is immediately followed by a positive statement: “Humility goes before honour” (Prov. 18:12). The New Testament is very strong in its articulation on the virtue of “humility” and the its opposite which is “pride”. For instance, St. James tells us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6). St. Paul cites Jesus as the greatest testimony to humility. Jesus, “who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. And for this God raised him high, and gave him the name which is above all other names” Phil 4:6-9). This virtue is also taught directly by Jesus. The eight beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:1-12 are an elaboration of the virtue of humility. At the peak of his instruction, Jesus calls on his followers: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart,” (Matt 11:29). This truth is resonated by the great St. Augustine of Hippo, who says: “Pride changed angels into devils; humility makes men into angels.”
The teaching of Jesus on humility, and every other issue besides, remains valid for all times. History abounds with instances of its realization. History’s pages are illuminated with countless examples of humble men and women who were raised to dizzying heights of glory by God. At the other end of the spectrum, the pages of history are also littered with the carcasses of proud men and women who were brought down to earth rather unceremoniously from the pedestals on which they had installed themselves. We can bet on history repeating itself if we are not wise enough to heed the words of Jesus concerning humility, however much we may be endowed and whatever the volume of our achievements.
- WHAT IS HUMILITY?
“Humility” comes from the word “humus” which means “earth”; “dust”; or “mud”. Following the creation story, to be humble means to be in touch with the earth; to be in touch with one’s own earthiness. It means to celebrate the blessing one’s lowly, earthly origin. “Humility” is also associated with a Latin adjective: “humilis”, which literally means “low”. To be “humble” is to be aware of one’s lowliness; or earthiness. Humility is often thought to occur in the absence of pride. It is the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others.
Humility is essential to spiritual life and vitality. It has to do with the posture of our heart. It is essential for several reasons:
- Humility facilitates gratitude and worship. We cannot truly worship God until we stop worshipping ourselves.
- Humility makes us teachable rather than stubborn. When we believe we know more than others (even more than God), we cannot learn anything.
- Humility enables us to receive and appreciate grace. Grace can be extended only when a person recognizes he/she needs that grace. The humble person sees that he/she deserves God’s anger rather than His love. Therefore, he/she appreciates and cherishes grace.
- Humility enables us to see the glory and blessing in others. We can never appreciate others until we stop seeing them as competitors and rivals.
- Humility makes it possible for us to truly trust God. Pride makes us stubbornly insist on our own way.
All these elements constitute the essence of being Christian and followers of Jesus Christ.
Once a parishioner of St. Augustine asked him this question: “Father, what are the most important things in religion?” He replied? “The most important things in religion? I should reply, the first is humility, the second is humility and the third is humility”.
- THE PARABLES OF TODAY’S GOSPEL
At the meal, Jesus noticed that the guests hurried to recline at the places of honor. He taught them that when they are invited to a wedding feast, they should sit at the lowest place. If they sat at the highest place and someone higher than they came in, their host would approach the lower guest and ask him to move down. This, of course, would be a source of humiliation. Instead, if the guest took the lower seat, the host would come to him as a friend and invite him to take a higher seat. Then, all would look on this person with great admiration. Secondly, Jesus advises them on giving a dinner. Instead of inviting close friends and relatives and all the people who might repay the invitation, Jesus encourages his listeners to invite those who could never reciprocate. Jesus explained that by doing this the host’s place would be insured at the heavenly banquet.
These are parables about the attitude we should have throughout our lives. We should be humble. Unfortunately, this goes against everything society teaches us. We are urged to promote ourselves. We view every conversation as an opportunity to prove our knowledge, wit, or intelligence (often failing). We approach every situation looking for how we can benefit. This is the opposite of humility; it is arrogance. Jesus condemns such arrogant attitude.
- CHARACTERISTICS OF JESUS IN TODAY’S GOSPEL
Humility is a virtue which is often misunderstood. It is often confused with subservience or lack of assertiveness. With this understanding, the humble person is seen as the one who acts like a door mat and lets other people trample all over him/her; he/she lets them into the house as it were and allows them to trample all over them without saying a word in response. And, of course, we might get this idea from the image of Jesus himself, dying on the cross. When we think of his example, is this not exactly what he did in being willing to die on the cross? People trampled all over him, beat him up and put him to death. The scripture says he was like a lamb that was led to the slaughter. And, like such a lamb, he was silent.
No doubt, Jesus showed humility at his death. But it is worth noting that the humility of Jesus in his death was not primarily demonstrated by his lack of assertiveness. On the contrary, Jesus at times was vehemently assertive, e.g., when he threw out the money-changers from the temple. Also, when one reads John’s gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion, one finds him by no means lacking in assertiveness. In fact, Jesus almost seems to be in complete control as he marches to his crucifixion! He looks assertive even in ‘letting go.’ Jesus was assertive to the point that his humility is not seen so much in the lack of assertiveness, but rather in his absolute lack of arrogance. He bore no PRIDE around him.
From this gospel, therefore, we can find at least three characteristics of humility. These three characteristics are also what we can see in our Lord Jesus Christ:
- i) First, the humble person does not need titles and positions to maintain a sense of his/her dignity.He/she does not rest on those things for a sense of who he/she really is. The humble person may have a title; he/she may have a position or whatever it may be, but he/she does not need and require that title. He/she does not need the best seat in the house to maintain his/her dignity. All he/she truly needs is to know that he/she is a child and a friend of the living God.
- ii) Second, the humble person notices other people. He/she treats with care those who, very often, can do them little or no good; those whom he/she might otherwise never notice.
iii) Thirdly, the humble person leads, and does so by serving quietly. He/she gets on with what needs to be done, to touch and influence for good, the lives of others. In this light, we can recall how Jesus when he was about to go to the cross and the disciples were trying to decide who among them is the greatest. Jesus quietly tells them that he is their leader and he demonstrates leadership as one who serves.
- IMPLICATIONS FOR ALL CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
In today’s gospel, Jesus is teaching two basic Christian virtues for any human community, and specifically, to Christian Communities – humility and solidarity with the poor. He does this in two stages, using two parables:
- i) The first parable is on the one invited to the Wedding Feast (Lk 14:7-11). This is addressed to Christians as those who are invited to the feast of the Lord’s supper. Irrespective of social status and importance we come to the Eucharist as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God. This is the only place where employer and employee relationship, master and servant distinctions dissolve and we recognize one another simply as brothers and sisters in the Lord, as together we call God “Our Father”. The Letter of James reports and condemns a situation where Christians “make distinctions” in the Christian assembly: “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” (James 2:2-4). Here, Jesus challenges his followers to abolish the rich-poor distinction among them and to recognize and treat one another as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God.
- ii) The second parable is on the one giving a great dinner (verses 12-14). This one is addressed to Christians as those who invite others to the feast of the Lord’s supper. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”(verses 12-13). Here, Jesus goes beyond levelling out the distinctions and calls for a preferential treatment of the poor and the disabled among us. He calls for affirmative action. Preference should be given to the poor and the handicapped. A chain is only as strong as its weakest point. That is why priority of attention is to be given to the weakest link in the chain. It is in the best interest of the entire chain. It is in the best interest of the Christian community to give priority to the poor and disabled in its distribution of resources. To every community that claims to be “Christian”, Jesus is calling attention to certain areas that are often neglected in society: Does our family, Church community, country, etc. measure up to the criterion of preferential option for the poor? Do we ever consider wheel-chair access to our homes, churches, offices, shops, public places, etc. in order to serve “the crippled and the lame”? What about providing sign-language translation at our gatherings, church services, etc., for the benefit of “the deaf” and braille scripts, Bibles and prayer books for “the blind.”? This is what it means to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk 14:13).
As the book of Sirach puts it in the first reading: “The greater you are, the more humble you should behave, then you will find favour with the Lord” (Sir 3,18). Regardless of who we are, let us pray for the grace of true humility in our lives.