22nd Sunday of the Year ©
My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God. (Sirach 3:1f)
When the Titanic was set to sail on it’s maiden voyage, it’s captain is reported to have made an incredible boast to the press. He supposedly blustered that his ship was so well built that even God couldn’t sink it. An iceberg was soon to put that rather blasphemous boast, and the Titanic, to rest in the deep waters of the North Atlantic along with the unfortunate ship, the Captain himself and most of it’s passengers.
The boast, in all likelihood, was just a flip remark made by a man who was extremely proud of his ship, but this proudful boast was also perhaps a rather telling sign of the times, a sign of the deep seated pride of our modern, scientific culture. It is a kind of hubris that threatens any man and any civilization that is convinced that one no longer needs God, that one now has science and technology, which can produce great marvels like that ship, and in deed can produce the answers to all man’s problems in this world. It really believes in the end that technology and science can replace God Himself.
Pride was the downfall of mankind right from the very beginning when Satan brought down the human race by appealing to what the Greek philosophers called hubris: “eat from the tree of knowledge and you will be equal to God.” Satan himself had been brought down by his own tremendous pride when he refused to serve the creator, and so the chief demon knew well what to appeal to in the human creature – that stupendous pride that tempts the creature to want to be equal to it’s creator. It is this incredible and foolish pride that underlies all human sin, from the sin of Adam to the last sin that man will commit in this world. Sin is always a proudful refusal to obey God, a refusal to serve the will of the Creator, and the inner core of every sin is the pride filled decision, “non serviam”, ” I will not serve.”
If man had any hope to be redeemed, to be saved from his deadly pride and rebellion against God, a rebellion that separates man from Paradise – and God is in fact man’s Paradise, the only possible source of man’s fulfillment and beatitude – then pride would have to be overcome, put to death by it’s opposite, the virtue of humility. What man had done to himself through the sin of pride would have to be undone by an even greater virtue of humility.
This process of redeeming man from his sin, and of overcoming the root of all sin which is human pride, began with the most astounding act of humility imaginable, the humility of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God actually lowered Himself infinitely and became a member of the human race that had been condemned by Adam’s pride to damnation and self-destruction. As St. Paul writes: “Who, though he was in the form of God, 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.” [Phil 2:7-8]
To understand the teaching of Jesus that humility is the remedy for pride and sin, it is critically important to recognize the astounding nature and degree of His humility. For instance, try to imagine yourself becoming permanently a person in the body of a tiny insect in order to rescue insects from destruction. Yet, such a “lowering” of yourself would be little or nothing in comparison to the humility of the Divine Word who lowered himself, or, as Paul says, “emptied Himself” to become a member of our fallen human family in order to rescue us from self-destruction. In truth, there is an infinitely greater distance between ourselves and God than between ourselves and insects. For God to lower himself and become a man was an infinitely greater act of humility, therefore, than if one of us were to become an insect, even were that particular insect made somehow rational by that act.
Thus when Jesus teaches us about humility, it is not some virtue that he understands only speculatively or theoretically, in the abstract, but something he knows about firsthand in the most astounding way, as Paul teaches: “Who, being in very nature God … made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Phil. 2:6-7
Seen from this perspective, Jesus’ whole human life was and is one tremendous act of humility springing from the Incarnation itself, the moment when he lowered himself to take the form or nature of man, indeed the form of a slave as Paul says, for mankind was now enslaved by the fall of Adam. And His stupendous humility is manifested again and again, in his choice to be born of a poor virgin, to embrace the lifestyle of the poor man, to be a humble laborer with his hands, to grow up in an obscure little village, to remain hidden in his home and work until he was over 30 years old. His tremendous humility was ultimately manifested in this world when he was rejected by the leaders of his people and abandoned by the people themselves and underwent his passion. Finally, as St. Paul says, in the end “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And it was this last act of His humility that fully redeemed our fallen humanity.
Jesus, then, teaches us a virtue that he knows firsthand, not just something he knows in his mind, when he was teaching about humility, not just in theory. Because Jesus is pure humility, humility stands as the virtue that man must acquire before he can become a true child of God. It is God’s sanctifying grace and charity that actually transforms the human sinner into a true child of God. But this new divine life of man cannot be maintained and cannot reach its perfection in us without our exercise of the virtue of humility. We must begin the journey to God by recognizing our true status as lowly and fallen creatures, recognizing that we are not God, nor in any way equal to God, and we must understand and accept that if we are to be God’s children, we must first humble ourselves, and, like Christ our brother and our God,”become obedient unto death.” There is no other way to Paradise than this path of divine humility.
We must also learn from Jesus that there is no way to acquire the virtue of humility than through practicing this virtue in one’s daily life. Surely that is the message of Jesus in today’s Gospel. If you want to overcome your deep seated pride, then practice humility in concrete ways. Do not be afraid, at least occasionally, to take the last place or to take the lowest job. Be willing also to associate with the lowly themselves, to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus who was lowly, the lifestyle of the humble, and try to understand that the richer you are, the more danger you are in, for pride is always lurking in the shadows of lifestyle of the rich.
In short, we must learn every day to imitate Jesus the Lord who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at… but emptied himself taking the form of a slave.” We cannot overcome our pride simply by wishing it away, nor even simply be praying for humility, though that too is obviously necessary, because without God’s grace we can make no real progress in this virtue. What Jesus is saying to all of us is that we must put into practice what he teaches us in very concrete ways in his own way of life. Jesus lived humility, and did not just talk about it. We must do the same.
So, the Gospel today teaches us this – if we would be in his company in Heaven, we must put our pride to death, and become, like Him, lowly and humble of heart on earth. We do that by embracing His lifestyle, consciously seeking concrete ways to live the simple and humble way of life that He lived on this earth, deliberately humbling our pride which always threatens to shipwreck us. If we make this effort in this life, then the Lord of the heavenly banquet will recognize us even if we are at the lowest place in this world’s eyes. That is where the Father was accustomed to see his own Son when He was in this world. And like Jesus in His humility, we will learn to be content allowing His Father to raise us up to a position closer to our Redeemer and Lord. Let our prayer always be, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart make our hearts like unto thine,” and then let us act accordingly.
As a final note here, there is a great prayer for humility composed by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X, that can be found online at: http://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/humility.htm