During one of my talks during the retreat weekend, I reflect on the fact that forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do as Christians. Being humble may be another. After telling the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 18: 9-14), Jesus says, "I tell you, the latter [the tax collector] went home justified, not the former [the Pharisee]; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." Even with a promise like that, it seems that we struggle mightily with humbling ourselves. Perhaps we struggle with humility simply because we just don’t like it!
But if we remember what our faith tells us about God, and about what Jesus did for our salvation, and how the Holy Spirit enables us to follow Jesus and do God’s will, it seems fairly obvious that humility is a most appropriate attitude to have. When we remember that it is by God’s grace that we can do the good that we do, what else can we be but humble?
A sense of humility helps us understand ourselves and our world. When we look at the beauty of creation and the vastness of the universe, we recognize that the universe did not come about by something we did. We also realize that creation is not something for us to conquer, but to respect, and to care for. While we are called to nurture the gift of creativity within us, and to help build up the kingdom, it is not as rulers or destroyers, but as servants. When we witness the miracle of life when a child is born, or when an elderly person continues to give of him or herself, we know that we are called to promote life and not death.
When we experience success, we recognize that the gifts that we use to achieve that success have not come from us, but are gifts from God, and so we are to share the fruits of our success with others. There are some who say that sharing our success with others causes them to be less motivated to achieve success themselves. But when we are humble enough to realize that all is gift, we see that we are to give in return.
When we experience failure, that is often the time when we can finally accept the help that we need. When we are able to confront our own sin, that is when we let God in, and find out that He can and will lift us up! Jesus died and rose again to free us from the power of sin! The Pharisee’s sin was not that he fasted and tithed. His sin was his refusal to see his sin while looking down on others. Addicts in recovery often talk about the time they hit "rock bottom," and surrendered to their Higher Power, Who enabled them to get clean and sober, and help others who were still suffering.
We need to remember that humility is not the same as humiliation, in the way we commonly understand that word. Being humble does not require that we accept injustice. We are called to bear our crosses when they come, but we are also called to help alleviate the suffering of others. As Sirach points out in our first reading (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18), "Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed."
We also need to remember that humility is not the same as false modesty of lack of self-love. In our second reading from 2 Timothy (4:6-8, 16-18), St. Paul writes: "I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day…" There are times when I feel that Paul is bragging as much as the Pharisee in the parable! But he is only speaking the truth. Throughout his letters we see his reliance on the mercy and grace of God, acknowledging his past sins. But like him, we cannot let false modesty or lack of self-love enter in, because we have things to do, such as proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ (not the Good News of Phil, by the way).
Humbling ourselves before God leads us to gratitude, generosity, and service. May we let God in, accept His love, and do His will.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.