The Book of Sirach, this Sunday’s first reading, sounds a fundamental motif of the Bible: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” “Humility” may not be a prized virtue for a lot of people today. It conjures up “deference,” “inhibition,” perhaps signals a lack of ambition or self-confidence. Yet for the Bible and for Jesus himself, “humility” is a strong virtue to be sought.
The biblical notion of humility is signaled in the etymology of the word, coming from the Latin root word, humus, meaning “earth” or “soil.” The person who is humilis, “humble,” is someone planted firmly on the ground, in touch with reality and living without illusion. Our designation as “humans” is also from the same root word and emphasizes our status as being “of the earth,” as the biblical accounts of creation remind us. The Bible considers it proper to be “humble” because we are creatures who are not self-sufficient but ultimately depend on God for our very existence. Before the majesty and overwhelming beauty of God, we stand in awe. To think of ourselves as more than we are—to fall into arrogance—is an illusion and lacks the fundamental self-awareness that humility ensures. The person who is humble lives in gratitude, realizing that everything is gift—above all our existence as daughters and sons of God.
The wisdom of the Scriptures suggests that those who are self-satisfied and impressed by their own wealth and achievement, who think they are autonomous and self-sufficient, are not likely to be “humble.” Often, however, the poor who realize they depend on others and ultimately on God for their very lives, are instinctively “humble,” without losing their sense of dignity and self-respect. To be “humble” is not to grovel or degrade oneself but to live in awareness of the truth.
This may be the reason for one of the intriguing characteristics of God in the Bible. God is repeatedly designated as one who cares for the poor and the humble, who sides with the outcast and the stranger. Even God’s choice of Israel to be his people, the book of Deuteronomy reminds us, is because Israel was in fact a poor and enslaved people, the “least” of all peoples. We hear this refrain in the responsorial Psalm 68 for today: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.” God is acclaimed as “the father of orphans and the defender of widows…God gives a home to the forsaken; he leads forth prisoners in prosperity.”
Jesus epitomizes this biblical favoring of the poor and humble. The gospel selection today from Luke is a prime example. Characteristically, Luke portrays Jesus at a meal, this time in the house of one of the “leading Pharisees,” and the guests, Luke notes, were observing [Jesus] carefully…” Jesus does not disappoint them and tells a parable about a guest at a wedding feast who makes the mistake of taking a place reserved for a more distinguished guest and is embarrassed to be told by the host to move down the line. The man, Jesus notes, lacked awareness of his true status. The humble are those who are aware: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
But Jesus is not done…he challenges his host by recalling God’s “prejudice” in favor of the poor and humble. Instead of inviting your friends or wealthy neighbors who will reciprocate and invite you to their gatherings, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.”
I think most of us are repelled by arrogance, by attitudes that seem to despise others while being self-congratulatory. Being a follower of Jesus means living and acknowledging the truth about ourselves. That we are children of God, made in God’s own likeness. That life is a pure gift. That, like the God who sustains us, we are to reach out to those in need, our fellow human beings, and welcome them.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.