Preached on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), October 23, 2016 at The Parish of St. Matthias, Victoria BC (Diocese of British Columbia, Anglican Church of Canada).
Some of you may recall this song by Mac Davis from 1980. I can’t forget it, because my father used to sing it, always with a twinkle in his eye:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.
O Lord it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doing the best that I can.
Well, while the song is framed as a prayer, its not a very earnest prayer. And in any case, Jesus showed us another way.
In the gospel according to Luke Jesus tells the following story (Luke 18.9-14)
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
What does this say to us about humility?
First, humility is about a relationship with God.
It is knowing that there is a Creator and that you are part of the created.
It is about knowing that the Creator is The Merciful One, and that we are people who need mercy.
It is about knowing that God is The Righteous One, and that we have fallen short of that righteousness, that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, mercy, and transformation. Humility is about knowing who we are, and whose we are.
And God expects much of us. We are created in the image of God, but we fall short of living up to that image. We have tarnished the gift of being made i God’s image. We have need of God, to raise us up, to challenge us, to make us more like Jesus and less like some idol on the television.
Second, consider the meaning of the word humility. It’s related to the word in Latin for “ground”, and it means “lowly”. But it can also be understood as being grounded. One who is humble is grounded, and is well rooted in the ground. A humble person has a good sense of who they are.
Third, there is a difference between being humility and humiliation. Humility is that grounded sense of self, having a good sense of who one is with all your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Humiliation is what a person does to another, denigrating them, abusing them, making them less than what they actually are. It is good to be humble, it is not good to humiliate others, usually because those who are humiliated are vulnerable and defenseless. Humiliation is the reduction of a relationship to having power over others. It’s often the default position of the rich and powerful. We do not humiliate others, and we should resist being humiliated. But we are called to be humble.
Fourth, the Gospel vision is one in which the arrogant are taught humility, and the humble are celebrated. Consider the radical words of Mary in the Magnificat:
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Or the words of Jesus repeated through the gospels:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Mark 10.31)
This is not new with Jesus. It is grounded in the teachings of the prophets. Humility is knowing who you are, whose you are, and knowing that you are. Joel writes, probably some 700 years before Jesus’s time,
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (2.27)
As a sign of God’s love and care the Holy Spirit falls upon all God’s people, not just prophets and kings. Joel writes:
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (2.28-29)
God empowers all people, from the lowliest to the highest.
So embrace humility.
In doing so you will become like Jesus.
In doing so you will become like God,
self-giving and deigning to become human.
In doing so, you will become the person God created you to be