Fr. Scott Lewis says humility comes with being comfortable in your own skin. Graphic by David Chen

Be comfortable in your own skin

  • August 18, 2016

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 28 (Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29; Psalm 68; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

The virtue of humility gets a lot of bad press. It is often seen as an invitation to be treated as a doormat or as a lack of self-esteem. Humility can also be used to oppress people by “keeping them in their place.”

But humility — true humility — is none of these. It can best be described as total freedom from the insatiable demands of the ego. The ego engages in ceaseless self-aggrandizement and is vigilant against any slights, real or imagined (usually the latter). Above all, the ego seeks to lord it over others.

Our TV screens and newspapers are filled with images of egos run amuck. The biblical view of humility paints a very different picture. People cannot be truly humble unless they accept who and what they are and are reasonably comfortable in their own skin. The humble person does not feel the need to exalt themselves — they are reasonably confident and have their feet firmly planted in reality.

Unfortunately, our culture sends ceaseless messages to us that we are not good enough as we are and that there is always something lacking. We need to be more intelligent, better looking, more skilled or have more possessions and a more important job. It can become an endless and merciless treadmill that devours the mind and soul.

Biblical humility offers the way out: work and live to please God, let go of the rest. There is an added bonus: freed from self-delusion and insecurity, the humble person can become very sensitive and receptive to wisdom in all its forms.

They know how to truly listen — a lost art in our time — and to learn from collective human experience and life itself.

Humility should never be confused with timidity or a lack of self-confidence. The humble person can be confident and courageous, willing to change, challenge and grow.

Humanity has always maintained a fear and dread of the divine, as well as a fascination and attraction. Our collective images of the divine presence are scary: fire, noise and power in overwhelming and terrifying proportions. Hebrews assures us that this is not the case.

Jesus calls us to a heavenly community with one another and with God. This communion is consoling and illuminating, and it is certainly nothing that we need fear or avoid. We can have a foretaste of this spiritual community even while still on Earth — but we have to be willing to allow it to happen by walking in the ways of the Spirit.

Jesus invited all of His followers to step off of the merciless treadmill of the ego. He used the example of formal meals, which were very important occasions of social interaction and identity building in the ancient world. One’s status or honour was determined by how close they were sitting (or reclining) to the host and guests of honour. There was a great deal of jockeying for position, along with ruffled feathers of those who felt slighted.

We are certainly not immune — just observe the body language and non-verbal communication at any cocktail party or important social gathering.

Jesus’ solution was to refuse to play the game. Don’t barge ahead trying to grab attention or an honoured place. Take the lowliest place and be at peace. If you are meant for a more honoured place, it will be given to you. If not, then you shouldn’t be overreaching yourself. Jesus went on to encourage His disciples to invite the so-called “losers” or “nobodies” to their social gatherings. They have no way of repaying the favour — the reward will be the kindness that you have shown them.

Social interactions should not be occasions for careful calculation of gain or advancement. In both examples, the simple lesson is that our validation, worth and identity should come from God and not from our society and culture.

Pleasing and building the ego takes us far from our true self. Jesus encourages us to be grateful for who and what we are now and to allow God to bless us abundantly.