The Power of Humility

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

A friend once told me, “You have to be careful what you pray for.”

If you pray for patience, God will make you wait for it. If you pray for a deeper understanding of God’s love, God will bring someone into your life who is difficult to love. And if you pray for humility, God will put you in a situation that you find humiliating.

Humility is probably the hardest thing to pray for and the hardest lesson to learn in the spiritual life. Those who have humility often don’t realize they have it. Truly humble people are more likely to be conscious of the many ways in which they fail to be humble.

Conversely, those who claim to have humility are often gravely mistaken. I don’t think there is anyone, other than Christ himself, who can rightly say, “I’m so humble!” Believing that you have humility is the first and greatest sign that you don’t have it. That’s what makes humility such a tricky virtue to cultivate.

St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism, describes the virtue of humility using the image of Jacob’s ladder in the biblical book of Genesis. In the original vision, Jacob saw a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, on which angels were “descending and ascending”. St. Benedict took this image as a lesson in humility. He had this to say about it:

“…if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw “angels descending and ascending” (Gen. 28:12). Without a doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts God will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.” (RB 7)

St. Benedict goes on from there to devote an entire chapter of his Rule for monasteries to the subject of humility. He outlines twelve steps along this metaphorical “ladder to heaven”. Time does not permit me to outline each of them here, but I leave you to look it up for yourself in the Rule of St. Benedict.

The subject of humility is an important one for all of us who live in a world and try to function in an economy that is built upon self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. We are told that if we don’t toot our own horns, no one else will. The key to success, we are told, is to ascend by ascending, even stepping over others along the way, if we feel it is necessary. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” we say, “and you’ve got to do unto others before they do unto you.”

Under such brutal values, it is the poor, the sick, the children, the elderly, and the different who get trampled upon. Those who adopt this blasphemous morality as their own cannot see any value in Christ’s teaching on humility. Humility, according to secular existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is “the morality of the weak.” Not surprisingly, Nietzsche is the same philosopher who famously declared, “God is dead.” The barbarous world we live in seems to have no place for the virtue of humility.

So, why is it then that Jesus, in today’s gospel, commends the virtue of humility so highly?

Christ says to his fellow guests at the party, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor… But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.”

At first glance, this comes across as a lesson in strategic etiquette, but a deeper look reveals a powerful truth that God has hidden in human hearts. The guest who takes the lowest place at the banquet draws out the natural compassion of the host. The host recognizes the injustice of the situation and acts quickly to rectify it. In doing so, the host reflects the image of Israel’s God, YHWH, who saw the oppression of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s genocidal tyranny. God then acted, through the hand of Moses, to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and escort them to the seat of honor that was prepared for them in the promised land of their ancestors. Like the host at the party, God saw the injustice of the situation and acted quickly to rectify it.

In the same way, we who act with justice and mercy toward the poor are also bearing witness to the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God, which has been planted in our hearts from eternity. This is why Jesus commands the host of the party, “[W]hen you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”.

In just a few short days, on September 4, Pope Francis will canonize the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta at a mass in Vatican City, officially recognizing her as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Like the host of the party in Jesus’ teaching, Mother Teresa took notice of the unjust suffering of her fellow human beings and acted quickly to set them in a place of honor. She cared for the poorest of the poor in one of the most challenging environments on earth. In her life, our elder sister in the faith embodied the instruction of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Like the guest at the party in Jesus’ story, she willingly took to the lowest place on earth, and so she is now being exalted in the Church. Her life has inspired the hearts of people the world over. Despite the brainwashing of this brutally selfish global culture, we cannot deny the odor of sanctity that comes from such humble compassion. We look at her and realize that Nietzsche was wrong: humility is not weak; it is the most powerful spiritual tool on earth.

As with all saints, Mother Teresa’s sanctity does not spring from her own heroism. She is holy because her humility echoes the humility we find in Christ himself. St. Paul writes of this humility in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

The humility of Mother Teresa is the humility of Christ. And in Christ, we discover that this humility is far from weak; indeed, it has the power to save the world. May our lives, like Mother Teresa’s, reflect the gentle power of Christ’s humility and compassion. May we, like the host of the party, act quickly to rectify injustice when we see it. May we, like the guests at the party, be willing to take the lowest in place in service to our world. May we resist the egotistical powers of this world that worship money, power, and violence as tools for self-aggrandizement. May we place our faith and hope in the humility of Christ, who died to save us and rose victorious over death. And may we, with Mother Teresa and all the saints, find in this humility the path to our own resurrection. Amen.

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