28 Aug 2016
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Sometimes the gospel message can be unattractive. And here we have it again today. Sirach writes, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” And, in so many words, Jesus gets at essentially the same thing: “In your dealings with others, take the lowest place first.” And, really, it’s for this reason (among others) that we look at the crucifixion; Jesus is humble, submissive, and lowly there on the Cross.
We know that humility is part of the Lord’s teachings for us. We know we should be humble. But, you know, it’s not always an attractive idea. It doesn’t inspire us to leap for joy and say, “Praise the Lord, I get to be humble today.” Humility is right up there with death and taxes, and having to admit you made a mistake. But, then again, who said that being a Christian was supposed to be easy and fun? Christ himself never said it.
“My child,” Sirach writes, “conduct your affairs with humility.” And it’s too bad the humility has gotten such a bad rap, because it really helps us to be genuinely human.
Humility has to do with being “grounded” in who we are—quite literally. The Latin word for the ground or the earth is “humus.” And we get a whole bunch of words from that like: humiliate [to shove somebody down to the ground, to degrade them], exhume [to remove a body from the ground in a cemetery], and human [to be a creature of the earth; remember, “dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to earth”].
And so, humility has to do with being “grounded” in who we are. It’s about living life with authenticity. And there are a lot of benefits to living life with humility. We heard many of them in the Scriptures today. Humility leads to: love and admiration from others, favor with God, and a release from the weight of our sins. It leads us to an appreciation of the sublime for what it is; approaching the unapproachable with curiosity and wonder. And it brings us the esteem of others, and a new life as sharers in the new Covenant with the Lord.
There are a lot of blessings which come with humility. But, you know, even with knowing what humility is, and seeing the benefits, it still isn’t the most attractive thing for many people. And that’s at least for a couple of reasons that I can think of.
One is that it’s hard to get our usual image of humility out of our head. You know, the idea that we have to be sad or miserable; the idea that humility means we have to debase ourselves and act as though we’re worthless. Of course, that’s not humility; it’s self-annihilation. But, still, it’s hard to get that image of humility out of our head.
But another reason why humility may not be attractive is because it puts us in a precarious position. In many ways, to be humble is to be weak. Humility is the path of those who are not in charge. To be humble is to be submissive to something else. And the prospect of all that is just not appealing to a lot of people. You know, generally speaking, we like to be strong and secure. We like to be in charge, or at least to have a position of influence. We don’t like to submit or to be weak; we don’t like to obey.
Of course, what’s the flip side of humility? Well, the lack of humility leads to things like: bullying (between both kids and adults), abuse, unforgiveness, pride, anger—seething anger, jealousy, envy, hatred, stinginess, judgmentalism, arrogance, isolation.
In the Middle Ages, the author Dante wrote a book called “Inferno.” It was his description of the various layers of hell. And at the bottom of it all was Satan. But Satan wasn’t in a raging inferno; he was frozen in a lake, his angelic wings unable to move, and in his mouth he chewed on his latest victim. He didn’t swallow, he just chewed and gnawed, refusing to give it up. That’s what hell is like: isolation, seething anger, unforgiveness, grudges. And it all stems not only from a lack of charity, but also a lack of humility.
After all, Satan’s great sin was to try to make himself equal to God. The problem was that he wasn’t. He was less than God, but he refused to accept who he was; he refused to be “grounded” in the truth of who he was. And so, humility maybe not be the most attractive way of life for people, but what’s the alternative? Sadly, as we know, too many people choose the alternative.
Last weekend we heard about Jesus having come to set the world on fire, and how he wishes it were already blazing. And we asked: “Wouldn’t it be great to take a match and burn up all the sin and division in the world? Wouldn’t that be a beautiful sight!” But, you know, for some people, it’s the last thing they want to see. After all, what would they do with their grudges against their neighbor?
Some people—even within the Church—like strife; either that, or they don’t know how to live without it. You know, there are people in the world, in the Church, in our families, in our neighborhoods who do not know what it means to live in peace. They’re either extremely hard of heart, or they’re terrified of what it means to “conduct our affairs with humility” and peace.
But what’s to be afraid of? What are we going to encounter there, in a life of humility? My guess is: our true self. Humility makes us come face to face with . . . ourselves.
There’s a prayer which I would encourage you to try. It’s simply called the “mirror prayer.” You get a mirror and look at yourself in it. Don’t look at your nose, or your mouth, or your eyes; look right into your own eyes. Stare at yourself and see what you see. Now, if you’re thinking is a “touchy-feely” sort of prayer, it isn’t. Coming face to face with yourself can be very difficult.
What’s there behind those eyes? Who’s there? A sinner? Yes, no doubt. Is there someone there who secretly holds a grudge and won’t let go? Maybe. Is there someone in those eyes who longs for companionship, or a sense of belonging and love? Maybe. Or are you unable to look at yourself? Many people are unable to look at themselves—because it makes us realize some hard truths about yourselves.
But, at the end of the prayer, you also should see in those eyes a child of God. A sinner, yes, but nevertheless a beloved son or daughter of almighty God. And you can have empathy for yourself; not self-pity, but self-empathy. You can begin to love yourself as God loves you. And then—and only then—can we really be charitable and truthful with our neighbors. Remember the second Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. How we treat our neighbors, our friends, our family, is direct reflection of how we treat ourselves.
If you’re angry with your neighbors, maybe you’re angry at yourself. If you refuse to let a grudge go, maybe you’re looking for something. If you’re gentle and forgiving of others, chances are you treat yourself the same: with gentleness and the mercy of God.
The thing about humility is that it tears down what needs to be torn down, and builds us up to be authentically who we are. And in that authenticity we give glory to God. St. Irenaeus said in the 2nd Century: “The glory of God is the human truly alive.” Humility isn’t just for our own good; it’s for the good of others, the good of the community, and for the glory of God. But it takes work. Humility takes work. The question is: is it worth it?
The benefits of humility: love and admiration from others, favor with God, release from the weight of our sins and grudges; appreciation of and wonder about our mysterious God; the esteem of others, and a new life as brothers and sisters in the new Covenant with the Lord. And the flip side: bullying, abuse, unforgiveness, pride, anger—seething anger, jealousy, envy, hatred, stinginess, judgmentalism, arrogance, isolation.
Is humility worth the effort? Well, I think so. God thinks so. The saints and the angels think so. A lot of our neighbors think it’s a good idea. Of course, no one can make you humble, but yourself. Why don’t you ask yourself, and see what you think.