10 March 2009

Another Look at Humility from the Perspective of Matthew 23:1-12

Today's Gospel presents us with an analysis of the nature of humility and a reminder about its importance. This lection is concerned with the image of authentic humanity seen in contrast with the inauthentic humanity of the pharisees. Three things in particular struck me about humility as a result of today's gospel passage.

First, while most of us would say the antithesis of humility is pride, and today's gospel certainly portrays pride as a symptom of the lack of humility --- the pharisees love their special seating at the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets as well as their titles and elaborate religious garb --- pride is an aspect of a deeper reality. That deeper reality is the real opposite of humility; it is HYPOCRISY which means play-acting, pretending or dissembling. What the pharisees show us is that there is a kind of forgetfulness in this hypocrisy, a willingness to ignore some aspect of the truth about themselves and others and to play up (or deprecate) other aspects, or the persons as a whole. The pharisees are indeed guilty of pride, but it is a symptom of this deeper problem, this need to pretend and live a lie.

One thing today's Gospel makes clear (and we will hear the same thing in tomorrow's) is that this kind of pretense is always at someone else's expense. If we cannot be truthful about ourselves and accept the whole of ourselves in light of God's love for us, in light of the infinite dignity we possess as his own, neither will we be able to be truthful about others. Because we feel ashamed and threatened on some level, we will need to put others down or oppress them in some way. For the pharisees, treating religion as a means to status for themselves also means making sure others are seen as less religious or even irreligious. The burdens they tie up and impose on others which they then do not lift a finger to help them bear is the burden of religious law. As a result of some of these laws some people cannot worship with their brethren, some are by definition unclean, etc. Their very livelihoods prevent them from being Jews in good standing, so to speak. For them, religion is oppressive and a means of disempowerment. It denigrates rather then exalting and empowering.

It follows then that one of the central signs of a lack of humility (hypocrisy, pretence, dissembling, etc) is seeing others as competitors or rivals. For this reason Jesus directly opposes this with the notion that those who really follow him are brothers and sisters to one another, and have a vocation to serve, that is, a call to ease the burdens of our neighbors. We do that in many ways, but one of the most important is by giving these neighbors access to the life of Christ and his gospel, a life which supports them in their preciousness and allows them to live up to their potential and dignity as human beings. Ironically, the biggest bit of forgetfulness the pharisees are guilty of is how TRULY gifted they were --- they and everyone else. That is, they forgot that where God was concerned they were truly beggars; their whole selves are gifts of God, given at every moment, inspired by his breath, sustained with his mercy and love, and given every good gift from beyond themselves. To say one is gifted requires a giver of gifts, and to acknowledge true giftedness is also to admit one's dependence on the giver.

Secondly then, it is from an examination of its opposite, and also from looking to Jesus that we come to see humility as a loving truthfulness about ourselves, especially vis-a-vis God and others. To be humble requires an awareness and acceptance of who we really are, not just in terms of limitations, brokenness, sinfulness, and the like, but our strengths, talents, and gifts as well. This is true not only because simple awareness is important in the spiritual life and pretense is disastrous, but because this kind of awareness and acceptance allows us to really live for others. For the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of our brothers and sisters and with the knowledge that we are essentially no better nor worse than anyone else, we are free to work on our limitations, whether that be with therapy, spiritual direction, education, etc. And for the sake of our brothers and sisters and the building up of the kingdom we will be free to develop and use our gifts, talents, and strengths --- but not if we remain either reticent or embarrassed about admitting them, or if we claim them as our own possessions and the means to self-aggrandizement.

Thirdly then, we have to renounce the notion that humility is about self-denigration or self-deprecation. It is not about putting ourselves down, and particularly not in hypocritical or insincere ways. Humilty is not about a lack of self-esteem or feeling and operating out of a lack of personal dignity. Instead, humility is about being exalted in the truest sense, that is accepting our identities, our preciousness and dignity in God, letting him lift us up from the dust of the earth and breath into us a spirit which sets us apart from the rest of creation making us uniquely gifted for the sake of the whole of his creation. Humility allows our greatest truth to be the fact that God is continually merciful to us, continually regards us as and makes us precious, continually loves us beyond and in spite of anything unworthy of his love in a way which makes us the very result of that love.

Genuine humilty recognizes and accepts both dimensions of our lives, the limitations and sinfulness, AND the giftedness and strengths, particularly since the latter do not come from us, but from the giver of all gifts. It is for this reason that other signs or symptoms of a lack of humility besides pride, competitiveness, and rivalry include false modesty, perfectionism (a lack of honesty about our own giftedness and its imperfection), a lack of self-esteem and all the actions that come with these. Embracing the whole truth of ourselves is both freeing and empowering. Not least it opens us to accept and use God's gifts (for which we need no longer be ashamed or self-conscious) on an ongoing basis. (After all, it is not easy to be rescued or saved, but for the humble person, it is the simple fact of who they are and who they will continue to be.) Further, it allows us to accept others for who they are as well, neither threatened by their gifts nor repulsed by their limitations and weakness. This empowers us to really be brothers and sisters to one another, and to serve as best we can.

We should always bear in mind that the word humility comes from the Latin, humus, which means earth or ground or soil. Humility reflects several senses of this word: 1) it recalls that we are creatures made from the dust of the earth, but also spirit-breathed, inspired beings with an innate dignity which is incomparable to any other creatures we yet know. 2) humility is the soil out of which all other virtues grow. It is akin to the good soil in the parable of the soils which allows the Word of God to take root and grow deeply and lastingly without being stunted or distorted while we proclaim it boldly with our very lives, and 3) it is indeed the ground of our salvation in the sense that it is the precondition, the loving truthfulness necessary for receiving fully the gift of salvation.

One final word on the last line of today's Gospel. We might be tempted to read this line as punitive (or alternately implying reward): if we lift ourselves up, God will knock us down, whereas if we denigrate ourselves, God will exalt that and us as a reward. I think this is a serious misreading of the line. What Jesus (via Matthew) is giving us here is the PARADOX of humility: if you are honest about yourself and who you really are, God's work to gift you will bear incredible fruit. His Word within you will be ABLE to exalt you further and further and make you even more who you are called to be. You will truly be God-breathed or inspired dust of the earth, and your inheritance will be eternal. If, on the other hand, you are unable to admit or accept the truth of yourself God's loving mercy will not be able to find a place to grow in you and will not bear fruit in abundance. If, and to whatever extent you cannot be gifted by and dependent upon God, then life and death will eventually take whatever status you have enjoyed away from you, and you will return to the dust of the earth as nothing more lasting than that.