“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“Humility” is a word that isn’t regarded too kindly in our world today. Unfortunately, when many people hear words like “humility” and “humble” they immediately think of “humiliation” or of becoming a doormat to be walked on by someone else. In fact, a large part of our contemporary culture tends to celebrate actions and values that are opposed to humility, particularly in celebrities and political figures. That’s truly an unfortunate perspective because, as Saint John Cassian observed, “Humility is the mother of all the virtues.”
So, then, what is humility?
Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which simply means “earth.” And, in a sense, this tells us all that we need to know about humility: to be humble means that we remember our “earthiness.” Or, to say it another way, it is to honestly accept and admit who and what we are.
Genesis tells us that when God made Adam, God formed him from the dust of the ground. And while Adam recognized God as his Creator, God loved Adam and saw him as “good.” Humility, then, isn’t about being down on ourselves. To be humble means that we recognize that each of us is God’s beloved creation—his children—and that we rely on God’s goodness and mercy every moment of every day as we journey through life. Humility, however, also means that we admit that each of us a work in progress.
Every man, women, and child is made up of diverse gifts, talents, graces, and virtues, but each of us is also in need of forgiveness and mercy for the times when we have made bad decisions, given in to temptation, and sinned. Humility is the virtue that allows us to recognize that we are equal in the sight of God, who loves each of us and continuously invites us into a deeper and richer relationship.
Humility is at the core of this Sunday’s Gospel as Jesus tells us about two men—a Pharisee and a tax collector—praying in the temple. Jesus’ audience would have immediately understood what these two characters represented. The Pharisees were respectable and known for their piety. And the Pharisee in Jesus’ story is man who fasts and tithes above and beyond what is required by the religious laws. And yet, in a brilliant play on words, Jesus observes that the Pharisee “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.” His prayer—offered to himself and not to the God who created and sustained him—was a tribute to his self-righteousness and also showed that he had no understanding of humility.
The tax collector on the other hand, is a public sinner and social pariah. He would have been looked down on and reviled by those in his community. And yet, Jesus tells us that this man “stood off a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven… and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector has no illusions about who he is or about his life and work. But his prayer is focused on God and it expresses the man’s desire for mercy which, as commentator observes, “has the power to transform his sinfulness.”
This Sunday’s parable ultimately invites us to reflect on how we see ourselves and to be open and honest about our relationship with God and with others. That honesty is, as we’ve seen, at the heart of humility and it is what allows the tax collector—the sinner—to be in right relationship with God. The challenge for us to recognize those times in our lives when we close ourselves off to grace and try to “go it alone,” forgetting that each of us is blessed and in need of God’s healing and redeeming love.
How have you understood humility in the past? How do this Sunday’s First Reading and Gospel invite you to see it in a new way?
How often do you use the “I” in your prayers? How do you express gratitude in your prayers?
Is there something in your past—or in your life now—that you haven’t asked to be forgiven? How does the witness of the tax collector invite you to trust in God’s mercy?
Words of Wisdom: “We belong to the humus, the soil, and it is in this belonging that we can find the deepest reason for gratitude. Our prayer must be, ‘Thank you, God, that I am worthy to be part of your creation. Be merciful to me a sinner.’ Through this prayer we will be justified, that is, find our just place in God’s Kingdom.”—Henri Nouwen