God's Word on Sunday: Scripture holds many lessons in humility

  • August 25, 2019

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

The greatest adversary we will ever face is our own ego. 

It can be aggressive, sly, ruthless and insatiable. Its sole activity is to build and protect an ideal image of perceived greatness and honour. It resists and fears self-knowledge and truth, preferring to live in its own little virtual world of grandeur and “alternate facts.”

Along with this self-delusion is the dangerous sense of being special — in its most extreme cases, above ordinary laws and limits. Our culture feeds this mania for self-promotion and advancement, constantly insisting that we need to be more talented, intelligent, attractive and in control. 

Negative things are never our fault — there is a long list of people and influences to blame. But the old saying, “Pride goes before a fall,” is so true. In our own time, we have seen many extremely rich, powerful and famous people experience absolute ruin and humiliation. 

Scripture — especially of the type we call “wisdom literature” — teaches us an entirely different way of looking at things. It teaches humility, a concept that is not in favour with many. 

A twisted and erroneous notion of humility can and has been used to denigrate and control others, but true humility is quite different. Humble people have self-knowledge — they know who they really are — and they are reasonably comfortable with that. Although they seek to improve themselves, their efforts are not to get ahead or lord it over others. 

Since the humble person is grateful in their role as the person God intended them to be, God acts as their teacher and guide. Their ego — the inflated and false sense of self — does not get in the way. 

For those who do possess rank and privilege, it is even more important to cultivate humility. This is the best way to prevent being kidnapped by self-delusion and falsity.

Once again, the Scriptures deliver a useful prescription for the megalomania, aggression, fear, deceitfulness and dishonesty of our time. 

As the oracle at Delphi urged visitors to the shrine, “Know thyself!” Beyond that, learn the art of living in a balanced, just, humane and kindly manner.

Religious practices throughout the ages have usually been associated with rather terrifying images of the deity. One must approach in fear and trembling, avoiding a false step at all costs. This rather subservient fear still affects many. 

The author of Hebrews encourages us with the assurance that we are called to a different sort of relationship with God and the realm of the Spirit. It is the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and as such it is characterized by relationship. It is a divine community and family to which we are called, and it is made up of those who desire to walk in God’s ways and to be transformed.

The banquet was one of the most important points of social interaction in the ancient world. It was where egos, reputations and social standing were cultivated and strengthened. Jesus observed the frenzied jockeying for position at an important banquet — the same sort of behaviour evident today in many social situations. 

His advice was to opt out of the competitive pursuit of honour. Be content with the lowest place. Let others invite you to a more honoured place because of your merits and qualities rather than your manipulation. After all, if you push too hard, you may overreach yourself and be publicly humiliated. 

He went even further: Forget about carefully honed guest lists, geared to social advancement and reciprocity. Invite those with no rank or standing. He suggested the blind and crippled, although today we might also say the poor, homeless or immigrants. 

Make the day of those who never get invited. There will be no immediate benefit or gain from inviting them and, in fact, maybe even some criticism. This is an eloquent expression of practical humility. 

The underlying principle is repeated several times in the Gospels: Those who seek to exalt themselves, especially at the expense of others, will be brought low and humbled. Those who practice humility will be exalted by God — and that is the only honour that really means anything.

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