Humility, Humility, and Humility
22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
I had a pastor once who said the three most important virtues were “humility, humility, and humility.” He wasn’t far wrong. St. Paul teaches that the greatest virtue is charity, as that is the principal virtue of heaven. But you cannot get to heaven without humility. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that prudence is the most important virtue because it helps you apply all the other virtues wisely. But there is no wisdom without humility. Only a fool thinks he is wise, while a wise man knows he is a fool.
The Catechism teaches that humility is the foundation of prayer (CCC 2559), which means before we can have a relationship with God, we must be humble. So yes, humility is very important. You can be weak in every other virtue and if you have humility you can be saved because you know you need God’s mercy. But if you lack humility, even if you are strong in every other virtue, you will be lost because of your pride. Humility is a tricky virtue to work on, because if you think you’re good at it, you probably aren’t.
So what is humility and how do we acquire it? The root word in Latin means “dirt” or “earth.” But humility doesn’t mean debasing yourself. It means being honest with yourself. It means seeing yourself for who you truly are, and that can be very difficult to do. In Genesis, God made man from the dirt of the ground and breathed life into him (Gen 2:7). Humility reminds us that without God’s life in us, we are nothing, and that all our good gifts come from him. Humility helps to keep us thankful. The humble person doesn’t think less of himself, but rather thinks of himself less.
Humility means recognizing your strengths as gifts given to you by God, which are meant to be used for God’s purposes. If you are a good speaker, a good athlete, a good musician, a good listener, a good artist, a good gardener, it’s not prideful to admit that you are good at these things. It is prideful to think that these gifts and talents make you better or more important than anyone else. It is prideful to think that these gifts come from yourself and should be used selfishly for your own interests.
Humility also means recognizing your weaknesses, either as areas of your life to be worked on, if it’s something that can be improved, or accepted as a cross if it’s not. Your weaknesses are occasions to rely on God for help, but they do not make you worse or less deserving than anyone else. Thinking your weaknesses make you special is just as prideful as thinking your strengths make you special. What makes you special is God and God’s love for you. God gave you certain strengths and certain weaknesses and the humble person accepts them both equally not counting either as his own merit.
Pride looks inward and says, “I am so good I don’t need God’s help,” or “I am so bad I am beyond God’s help.” Humility looks upward and says, “Lord, I need your help.” The most humble prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” because it recognizes the three essential truths that everyone must admit to get to heaven, and that is who we are (sinners), who Jesus is (God), and what we need from Jesus/God (mercy).
In this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 14:1, 7-14), Jesus is at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee, whom we can presume thinks pretty highly of himself. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to teach a lesson on humility with two parables, both about dinner parties. In the first one, he says to seek the lowest place at the table when we are invited to a dinner. Why? So that the host can call you up to the highest place. The second parable is from the perspective of the host. When you host a dinner, do not just invite the wealthy and influential who might pay you back, but invite the poor and the weak who can offer nothing in return. Why? Because a gift given in expectation of something in return is not really a gift but an economic transaction; whereas a gift given with no expectations is an act of love.
Both of these parables teach us about God. When the Second Person of the Trinity became Man at the incarnation, he left the highest place and assumed the lowest place. When Christ died on the cross for our sins, God gave us a gift that we could never repay, which makes it a perfect act of love. In other words, God is humble. In the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that we ought to have the same attitude that is in Christ (Phil 2:5), who humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross, and because of this was exalted by God (Phil 2:8-9).
This is the great paradox and mystery of humility. The greatest thing a human being can attain is to be like God. And God is humble. So if we want to attain the glories of heaven, to sit in that highest place of honor, we must seek the lowest place. Because that place of honor can only be occupied by one who gives himself in love for others and does not deem equality with God something to be grasped, like Adam and Eve grasping after the forbidden fruit. That divine gift cannot be taken, but only received by open and willing hands, and by open and willing hearts that are empty of pride and arrogance.
Jesus says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). And so we pray, Lord, make our hearts like unto thine.