Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humility: The Root of all Righteousness

Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Yet again we find Jesus at the home of a Pharisee eating a Sabbath meal.  And while the Gospel says that “they were watching him closely” it becomes pretty clear that Jesus was watching them closely as well.  

You may notice there are some verses missing from the Gospel lesson this morning.  In that gap Jesus performs a healing, and not unlike last week’s Gospel, Jesus challenges the lawyers and the Pharisees about the way they keep Sabbath, and how they treat the less fortunate.  While the lectionary chooses to leave this section out, it is not completely unrelated to the rest of the passage.  Jesus sees their disapproval of his healing, then notices them scrambling for seats, and he sees rather clearly that while they may be the religious leaders of the community, they are far more interested in gaining earthly honors than they are in showing mercy, or honoring God.  The same can be said for the host who only invites people who can repay him, his ideas about who is acceptable to eat with is determined by his pride.

As the guests vie for the best seats in the house, Jesus tells them a parable loosely based on Proverbs 25:6-7.  On the surface this parable seems to be about avoiding public embarrassment in a social gathering by acting in a humble manner so that they may be honored in front of their peers.  By itself this seems to promote the very hypocrisy of false humility that Jesus is known for criticizing.
But that is not what he is doing. He is not trying to teach this group a how to gain honor without risking the humiliation of rejection.  He is not trying to teach them “pride that apes humility,”[1] the parable he tells exposes their ridiculous behavior for the self indulgent display of pride that it truly is.  Jesus is well aware of their strategies for social living.  He is well aware of how they twist scripture into prideful games of status.  We see it over and over again in the Gospels, the way they make spectacles of themselves in prayer and fasting so that everyone can see how pious they are, they tithe out of their abundance but they use the Sabbath and cleanliness laws as excuses not to show kindness and mercy to others, all their focus is on looking as if they are pious and God fearing, while inside they are consumed with pride and selfishness. 

So Jesus tells them, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  

There is a distinction made here between ‘being humbled’ and ‘humbling yourself.’  The connotation made by the parable is that one leads to humiliation while the other leads to humility.

We all probably know humiliation pretty well, even the slightest act of humiliation can feel devastating, and we are quick to learn to avoid it at all costs.  We often employ our pride to keep humiliation at bay, but what we fail to realize is the only true antidote to humiliation, is humility. 
So what does humility really look like?

The most obvious place to look for an example is at Jesus.  God became incarnate in the world, lowering himself more than we could ever lower ourselves.  Becoming human, God, shows us what it truly means to be humble.  In Christ God reached down towards us and became what we are in order to save us, in order to be a blessing to the entire world.  In Christ’s life we see true humility in action.  There is no guile in his words or deeds, he does not seek status or personal gain, instead he focuses his attention outward, toward those in need. Towards us.
Of course we can never match Christ in his perfection, but we can at least see in him the honest sense of self, and genuine altruism, that make up a humble nature.  Jesus is free of petty disputes and unimportant concerns that are fueled by pride and a desire for status or personal recognition. 
We don’t know where Jesus was sitting at the banquet table, and honestly I don’t think Jesus cared.  He would not feel the sting of shame at being asked to move down, or the exultation at being asked to move higher up.  He was not concerned with such trifles.  He was not embarrassed by the company he kept or by the scorn and derision of his detractors.  There is no pride in him to get wounded.
But I think we are often more like the Pharisees than we are like Jesus.  We want to be noticed and respected.  We want to spend time with ‘acceptable’ people, even if we choose not to admit it we ARE prideful.  But even more than that, we far, far too often we mistake self-hatred for humility.   If humility is thinking less of yourself then there are many of us who feel as if we couldn’t get more humble.

But, self-hatred is a poor imitation of true humility and, while it may not seem like it, it is actually just another form of pride.  Self aggrandizement and self-loathing are really just two sides of the same coin.  Just like self exultation, self loathing is focused on the self in an unrealistic way, we cannot truly be humble if we don’t possess a true sense of ourselves.

Thomas Merton, who says quite a lot about humility, writes, “A humble person can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.” Humility frees us from constantly having to grasp outside of ourselves for validation.  When we let ourselves believe that we are loved by God, then we no longer have to pretend to be something we are not.  We can be who God made us to be.  When we are no longer constantly distracted by the anxiety of keeping up appearances, then we are truly free to live with joy and conviction. 
This is what humility allows for us.

You probably have heard the saying that “pride is the root of all evil.”  Well, I tend to believe that is true.  And the opposite seems equally true.  Humility is the root of all righteousness. It is humility that allows us to be truly present for another, to have compassion and mercy.  It is humility that allows us to truly love each other without reserve, and to be a blessing to each other, just as Christ is a blessing to the world.  

[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor “The Devil’s Thoughts.”

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