We cannot deny that today’s gospel is somewhat disturbing. We all aim to be on top and be held in high esteem; we work hard to gain power and be in control. Jesus instead tells us, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Today’s readings speak of humility, a virtue grossly misunderstood and unappreciated by the secular world. What is humility? We hear it often said that humility is truth. It is the acceptance of the truth primarily about myself in front of God and in front of others. What truth? That in front of God I am nothing, and I have nothing. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you claim it as yours?” (1 Cor 4:7)
Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or soil. It is the ground zero which is trampled upon by everyone and gathers every kind of dirt. While the image may be distressing, it represents only half the truth about us. The other half is that from the same earth God forms man and creates him in his image and likeness. Thus, the psalmist could only exclaim in wonder, “What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, with glory and honor you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hand, put all things under his feet.” (Ps 8: 5-8)
But above all, God breathes on the moulded earth and shares with man his own life. He makes him his child.
Humility then is not some kind of self-depreciation or low estimation of oneself. Humility is the awareness, not only of our own nothingness in front of God and others, but also of God’s gratuitous love in making us who we are and giving us all we have. Far from engendering a sense of inferiority, humility gives us the confidence that in God we can do all things.
I love the confidence of Steph Curry on the hardcourt and his humility in acknowledging God every time he shoots the ball by striking his breast and lifting his finger heavenward. He truly lives his motto: “I can do all things in him, who strengthens me.” (Ph 4:13) I also see the same confidence and humility in another favorite of mine, the incomparable Leo Messi.
The sin of the priests denounced by Malachi (first reading) and of the scribes and Pharisees rebuked by Jesus (gospel) is that they use their position and authority to promote themselves and claim as their own the glory that belongs to God alone. Perhaps, we should thank MX3 for constantly reminding us of the basic truth: “To God be the glory”.
Humility is truth. Nothing is more pleasing to God than the truth. Likewise, nothing is more attractive to man and to nature itself than what is real. The story is told about someone who wanted to test the wisdom of Solomon. He brought two roses to the king, one natural and the other artificial. The flowers were so identical that one could not tell the difference. He then asked the king which of the two was the natural. Taking the flowers, the king simply extended his hand outside the window. Soon, a butterfly perched on one of the flowers which he then gave to his inquisitor.
Today’s world is steeped in falsity and pretensions, fake news and deception. The present Gen Z must be so exasperated by such culture that they seek a safe haven and hope to find it in BeReal.
The paradox of humility is that in the end “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Without seeking position or power, the humble is raised by God to a status beyond his expectation and is empowered with a capacity beyond his own.
Yesterday, we celebrated the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, one of the greatest saints of the Church. Although he was born from a rich and noble family and endowed with talents and privilege (his uncle Pope Pius IV made him cardinal at the age of 21 and appointed him archbishop of Milan at the age of 25), he lived a simple life and spent all his fortune for the poor and the welfare of the Church. He was a zealous pastor, visiting every town and village of his archdiocese. He led the counter-reformation, convoked synods, promulgated regulations and established institutions greatly needed for the renewal of the Church, like the seminaries. He died at a young age of 46. One cannot but wonder how he was able to achieve so much for the Church in such a short time. The answer is no surprise if one knows his motto: “Humilitas” (humility).
With Mary, St. Charles can truly say, “He has looked on the lowliness of his servant, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, holy is his name.” (Lk 1:48-49)