October 24, 2016

Our Problem with Humility

            Humility has been called the master virtue.  If one can grow in humility the rest of the spiritual life falls into place.  Yet, being humble is really hard and goes against the grain of everything our self-actualized culture professes. Humility grows in importance in our time, especially since it has the power to restrain yelling, which might be very helpful in this political season.

JESUS MAFA. The Pharisee and the Publican, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            Jesus loves to tell stories, and the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector who went up to the temple to pray, is one of his finest.  The text begins: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9).  Just in case we might miss it, the warning is at the beginning: looking down on everybody disqualifies one for the Reign of God.  Trusting in ones own goodness is a fool’s errand.

Millais, John Everett, Sir, 1829-1896. Pharisee and the Publican, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            The Pharisee prays first, expressing how profoundly grateful he is not to be like others, and he lists the evil-doers, including the tax collector nearby.  He then recounts to God his spiritual practices--just to make sure God is proud of him, too.  Actually, he never gets around to asking God for anything since apparently he is convinced of his righteousness.
            The tax collector stood at a distance, and in humility would not even look up to heaven.  Displaying signs of repentance, he implored: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Honesty about his own sin proved redemptive.  Jesus said: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

            Being humble is hard, and we fear it will make us vulnerable.  It surely will, and that is a good thing.  Yet humility remains a challenging spiritual posture because we live with incessant social demand for achievement and power.  Joan Chittister writes: “Lack of humility is a social virus, a plague that infects the whole culture.”  She offers this definition: humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.”
            Humility creates space for God and for the other.  When we are proud, we are self-referential about everything, and we fill up all the space.   Humility allows us to be receptive and delivers us from the burden of perfection, thus granting inner freedom.
            We can choose which pathway we will follow.  We can either recognize the truth of our lives as sinners and seek God’s mercy, or we can continue to bluff about how well we are doing and how little we need the outpouring of God’s grace.
            One way leads to joyful life; the other leads to self-protective striving.  We can learn the downward mobility of being humble, and it will draw us nearer to God and to one another.  And God will determine who is righteous, through God’s great mercy.

            Molly T. Marshall

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