The Virtue of Humility


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Our readings this Sunday speak to the virtue of humility. Jesus teaches that the one who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.  He offers a parable (as He often does) to illustrate the point.  If you are invited to a wedding banquet, don’t presume to sit in the place of honor.  Sit in a lower place and your host may invite you to a higher position.
Once I was having lunch at a meeting of diocesan employees. I was one of the last in line and so by the time I got my plate most of the seats were taken.  There was an empty seat next to the bishop, as well as an unoccupied table in the corner. Thinking of this parable, I sat down at the empty table.
Perhaps His Excellency had the same parable in mind when he called me over to sit by his side.  It certainly felt nice to be so recognized and welcomed by the bishop. Had I presumed to take the seat next to him initially, I would not have known his generous welcome.  I would instead be wondering if I had taken the rightful seat of another.
But is this the only reason to be humble — so that we may occasionally get “warm and fuzzy” feelings when someone recognizes us?  Should I say I’m not that good of a singer in order to solicit complements on my singing voice?  Should I say I’m not that good looking so that people will tell me how attractive I am?  To be humble as a means of fishing for complements is a false humility.  It is, in fact, a form of pride.
The Catechism defines humility as “the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good.”  So humility is less about recognizing how lowly we are than about recognizing how great God is.  If we know that God is the author of all good, then we know that we are not.  
Humility is about living in truth.  It is about recognizing who you are before God.  He is the Creator.  You are a creature.  He is infinite.  You are finite.  He is great.  You are small.  He is the source of all goodness.  You are the recipient.  
Our first reading from Sirach speaks of the humble finding favor before God.  It warns against seeking things that are beyond our reach or that are too sublime for us.  The goodness of God is beyond our reach.  Heaven is too sublime.  In humility, we need to recognize this.  We cannot create our own heaven.  We cannot be our own gods.
But our second reading from Hebrews reminds of an another important truth.  As Christians, we deign to approach that heavenly Jerusalem — but not because of our own merit.  We can only approach God’s splendor because of Jesus Christ, “the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb 12:24).

The philosopher Peter Kreeft has said that when we stand before God at our judgment and He asks why we should be admitted into heaven, our answer should not begin with “because I…” but must begin with “because You…”  

The Catechism also calls humility “the foundation of prayer” (CCC 2559).  Humility is a prerequisite for prayer for the same reason it is a prerequisite for salvation — one cannot approach God in any way other than in humility.

This is why the Jesus Prayer is so powerful, and so enduring.  It is a prayer of humility.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.

This simple prayer is perfectly humble because it is perfectly true.  It has Jesus as its object, and rightfully acknowledges Him as the Christ, the Son of God, as Lord.  The one praying is the subject, rightfully acknowledging his or her sinfulness before the perfect goodness of God.  And it asks for what we most desperately need from our Savior — mercy.  One who is not willing to be humble before God is incapable of receiving God’s mercy.
In Christ, God humbles Himself, and paradoxically opens for us the path to exaltation.  Often in the gospels, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast.  God has invited us to this feast. We take the lowest seat at the banquet when we recognize our own limitations as frail and fallen human beings.  In Christ, God asks us to join Him at the place of honor.