Humility

Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Ps 68:4-7, 10-11; Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a; Lk 14:1, 7-14

Humility is the theme of the first reading and the Gospel – and it is a puzzling virtue. Perhaps a humble person is loved more than a giver of gifts, as the first reading claims, but most people do not make acquiring humility a high priority. What is worse, humility can even seem vaguely distasteful, particularly today when we are told we can be whatever we want to be. Is it not better, then, to be ambitious, to strive for excellence? Why exactly should we be humble?.

Before trying to answer this question, I should point out that humility is a puzzling virtue even in the Bible. Not everyone the Bible describes as ‘humble’ behaves in the way one might expect. A good example is the case of Moses. Scripture describes him confronting an evil king, working miracles, giving God’s law and leading over six hundred thousand people out of slavery. In much of his work, Moses did not take the lowest place; he had to be at the front, leading the people to the Promised Land. Yet Scripture also describes Moses as the most humble man on earth (Num 12:3). Whatever else humility is, it is not incompatible with leadership or greatness.

How, then, can we understand humility? One possible approach is to see what is wrong with its opposite. What exactly is wrong with pride? The four kinds of pride are, first, to think one has some good thing one does not really have – an example of this would be empty boasting. The second kind of pride is to know one has some good thing but wrongly to take the credit – an example of this would be those who are vain about their looks, intelligence and abilities, as if they could take the credit for what has come to them as a gift. The third kind of pride is rather subtle – it is when someone accepts a good thing as a gift but also thinks he or she deserved the gift. The fourth kind of pride is simply to despise others, to wish to be the only one possessing some good thing. The most famous example of this fourth kind of pride in Scripture is the Pharisee who prays to God with the words, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). In other words, the Pharisee takes pleasure in the fact that he is the only one, he thinks, who is really virtuous. Now all these forms of pride involve serious errors of judgment or failures to recognize what we have received as gifts. But the worst problem with pride is that pride is incompatible with love. One cannot really be friends with a proud person, because pride is ‘cold’. Those who worship themselves cannot receive love or love anyone else. Indeed, Dante, in his famous poem about a descent into hell, describes the lowest depth of hell as a frozen wasteland, a lake in which sinners are embedded like straws in ice.1 The proud person is locked in and ‘cold’.

So if we are to enjoy love and friendship, the warmth of laughter and joy, we need humility as an antidote to pride. However, humility in the Christian sense is more than simply judging ourselves correctly. Humility in the Christian sense goes further than this: it suggests a self-emptying, of deliberately making ourselves small. Jesus tells us to take the ‘lowest place’ when we are invited to a wedding banquet. Now, like Moses, not every humble person physically takes the lowest place in life. Given that there are humble kings as well as humble beggars, Jesus is talking more about an interior disposition than a physical seating plan. Nevertheless, the disposition is real and wedding banquet is certainly real. My dear brothers and sisters, we have all been invited to a real wedding banquet, the banquet described in the second reading, the heavenly Jerusalem with the countless angels in festal gathering. This is where the virtue of humility is crucial. The central point is this: we do not earn our salvation, nor do we deserve our salvation. Indeed, we cannot take one step towards the heavenly Jerusalem except in obedience to the Lord, following the direction of the one who makes a home for the poor, as today’s Psalm says. When it comes to matters of salvation we have to follow the Lord, who has prescribed for us humble means, such the sacraments and the life of prayer, to bring us safely to the Kingdom of Heaven.

How, then, do we acquire humility – given our natural tendency to want to be in control, to try to save ourselves? The answer is that humility itself is something God gives us: a self-help book entitled How To Be Humble would miss the entire point. There is, however, a tried and tested path by which God often does make us humble. It is not pleasant, since it goes by the name of humiliation, but humiliation does bear abundant fruit. God frequently seems to make someone weak, or allow a person to fall, to bring about the disposition of trusting in Him alone. It is only when Peter has betrayed Jesus, his Lord and friend, that he is humble enough to be the leader of the Church; it is only when Paul has persecuted Christ to the point of murdering his disciples that he is conscious enough of his failure, of his dependency on God, to be the greatest of all missionaries. So many of the saints have been, in some sense, failures before they become ready to trust in God alone. Humility disposes us to receive God’s gifts as gifts – and even that disposition is itself the fruit of God’s grace.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 2nd September 2007

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1.   Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 10 - 15.

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