Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector is characterized by several well-constructed contrasts. It is easy to imagine the scene as if it were an old-time black-and-white cowboy movie with the good guy dressed in a white outfit and the bad guy in black. Both Reginald H. Fuller and Robert J. Karris use this good guy/bad guy imagery, though not in a film setting. However, unlike most classic western films, our Lord’s parable has a surprise ending, more in the line of the Alfred Hitchcock genre. The Pharisee arrives on the scene as the good guy who does all the right things. On the one hand, he is “not like the rest of men who were thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even like the tax collector nearby.” On the other hand, the Pharisee fasts twice a week (though Judaic law’s only prescribed obligatory fast was on the Day of Atonement), and he gives a tenth of everything he gets (though the law required only tithing one’s produce). In the public’s eye, the Pharisee is the good guy wearing a white hat of super virtue.
By contrast, the publican’s very profession projected an unpopular image. Because he collaborated with the Romans to extract taxes from his own Jewish brethren, people viewed him as a traitor, an exploiter, and a shady character. He is the bad guy in the scene wearing the symbolic black hat. The best we can say of him in the scene is that he at least humbly acknowledges his crimes and prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” If we still imagine the parable as a scene from a movie with Jesus the writer and director, we can visualize the fade out of the two men. But before we leave the theatre, the narrator makes these final remarks: “I tell you that this man—the tax collector—went home justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
How shocked and outraged Christ’s listeners must have been! “How can you say,” they might have cried out, “that the villain was favored by God and the saint rejected? How can you put this despicable character of a tax collector on a pedestal and embarrass our esteemed religious hero, the Pharisee?” One could imagine almost a riot ensuing and some in the audience threaten to stone Jesus. Yet, if the people went home and reflected further on the startling reversal of roles in the parable, many of them might come to understand its deeper meaning and learn the lessons our Lord was teaching them. They might realize that Pharisee was a good man insofar as performing his religious duties, but he went wrong when he looked down on the publican with his Little-Jack-Horner attitude, “What a good boy am I compared to him.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the New Lectionary [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1974] pp 81-82); (Robert J. Karris, Invitation to Luke [Garden City: Image, 1972] pp. 204-5)
G. B. Caird makes the following observations in The Pelican New Testament Commentaries’ volume on Luke’s gospel: “Two men went into the temple to pray, but only one of them prayed. Prayer must be addressed to God, and the Pharisee was not really interested in God, but only himself. All his verbs are in the first person. His prayer is a catalogue of negative virtues and minor pieties.” One might say that the Pharisee did not pray to God but with himself; he didn’t really go to pray but to inform God how good he was. The Pharisee had mistakenly set up his own standards for righteousness—a standard based on external practices and legal observances. This is not to say that external practices and legal observances are bad and should be thrown out of our churches. The Pharisee’s mistake was that he went no further than that; he put his entire trust in that standard and never penetrated into interior matters of the heart. Instead of his piety bringing him into an ever deeper personal relationship with God, it became almost an idol and thus a barrier between him and God. The Pharisee was already on his way to spiritual pride.
Turning to the tax collector, Caird doesn’t try to hide or ignore his faults, his disreputable life, and his sins. Nonetheless, Caird highlights the honest humility the publican had. In his prayer he centered his mind on God, confessed his sinful condition, and humbly asked for God’s help. Compared to the Pharisee nearby he was not a better person because of his past life, “but he did the one thing that God requires of anyone sincerely seeking him: “He faced the truth about himself and cast himself on God’s compassion.” Caird concludes his commentary with an interesting and encouraging observation. The gospels do not give us the rest of the story, and so we don’t know whether the publican’s repentance was deep or shallow. Nonetheless, “God can use even the first traces of a nascent faith.” (G. B. Caird, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries: St. Luke [Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1972] pp. 202-3)
In his book Voicing a Thought on Sunday, Desmond Knowles challenges us to ask if we ourselves are honest and humble in the way we encounter the parable. “This gospel puts into words shameful attitudes that many of us possess but are reluctant to admit.” Our hearts and sympathy tend to go out to the tax collector, who has nothing to offer to God except his sorrow. “However, in real life,” Knowles says, “we are more inclined to imitate the Pharisee. Our style of behavior may be less obvious but it’s there all the same.” Knowles reminds us that like the Pharisee we can become spiritually smug and self-satisfied, try to appear better to others than we actually are, and brag about our achievements but forget about God’s part in them. (Desmond Knowles, Voicing a Thought on Sunday [Mystic, CT: Thenty-Third Publications, 1996] pp. 370-1)
The devout observed two or three prayer times daily—in the morning and the evening and sometimes also at noon. Prayer was held to be especially efficacious if it was offered in the Temple and so at these hours many went up to the Temple courts to pray. Jesus told of two men who went.
(1) There was a Pharisee. He did not really go to pray to God. He prayed with himself. True prayer is always offered to God and to God alone. A certain American cynically described a preacher’s prayer as ‘the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience’. The Pharisee was really giving himself a testimonial before God.
The Jewish law prescribed only one absolutely obligatory fast—that on the Day of Atonement. But those who wished to gain special merit fasted also on Mondays and Thursdays. It is noteworthy that these were the market days when Jerusalem was full of country people. Those who fasted whitened their faces and appeared in disheveled clothes, and those days gave their piety the biggest possible audience. The Levites were to receive a tithe of all a man’s produce (Numbers 18:21; Deuteronomy 14:22). But this Pharisee tithed everything, even things which there was no obligation to tithe.
His whole attitude was not untypical of the worst in Pharisaism. There is a recorded prayer of a certain Rabbi which runs like this: ‘I thank Thee, O Lord my God, that thou hast put my part with those who sit in the Academy, and not with those who sit at the street corners. For I rise early, and they rise early; I rise early to the words of the law, and they to vain things. I labor, and they labor; I labor and receive a reward, and they labor and receive no reward. I run, and they run; I run to the life of the world to come, and they to the pit of destruction.’ It is on record that Rabbi Simeon ben Jocai once said, ‘If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he!’
The Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God how good he was.
(2) There was a tax-collector. He stood afar off and would not even lift his eyes to God. The Authorized and Revised Standard Versions do not even do justice to his humility for he actually prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me—the sinner,’ as if he was not merely a sinner, but the sinner par excellence. ‘And,’ said Jesus, ‘it was that heartbroken, self-despising prayer which won him acceptance before God.’
This parable unmistakably tells us certain things about prayer.
(1) No one who is proud can pray. The gate of heaven is so low that none can enter it save upon their knees. Christina Rossetti’s words express all that any of us can say:
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other Hope in heaven or earth or sea,
None other Hiding-place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee.
(2) No one who despises others can pray. In prayer we do not lift ourselves above others. We remember that we are one of a great army of sinning, suffering, sorrowing humanity, all kneeling before the throne of God’s mercy.
(3) True prayer comes from setting our lives beside the life of God. No doubt all that the Pharisee said was true. He did fast; he did meticulously give tithes; he was not like other people; still less was he like that tax-collector. But the question is not, ‘Am I as good as my neighbor?’ The question is, ‘Am I as good as God?’ Once I made a journey by train to England. As we passed through the Yorkshire moors I saw a little whitewashed cottage and it seemed to me to shine with an almost radiant whiteness. Some days later I made the journey back to Scotland. The snow had fallen and was lying deep all around. We came again to the little white cottage, but this time its whiteness seemed drab and soiled and almost grey in comparison with the pure whiteness of the driven snow.
It all depends what we compare ourselves with. And when we set our lives beside the life of Jesus and beside the holiness of God, all that is left to say is, ‘God be merciful to me—the sinner.’(Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] 265–267)
Early in his ministry, Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32). The parable now contrasts representatives from each of these categories. Jesus’ opponents ridiculed him as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34), but Jesus responded that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).
Less evident is the reason why the Pharisee’s prayer is not accepted. Is it because he presumes, he is righteous but is not? Does his lack of humility or his confidence in his own virtue exclude him from God’s grace? Does the fact that he has separated himself from others signal that, although he may not realize it, he has separated himself from God as well?
The parable leaves it to the reader to consider the contrast between the two. Verse 14 affirms that the one who presumed he was righteous (v. 9) and not like the unrighteous (v. 11) was not made righteous, while the one who was so acutely aware of his unrighteousness was made righteous. The parable, therefore, is not merely a study in contrasts but ends with a dramatic reversal. The one who said, “I know my transgressions,/ and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51:3 NRSV) could now rejoice that his petition, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,/ and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10 NRSV, italics added) had been heard. The proud are brought down, and the lowly are exalted (see 1:52).
The second part of v. 14 moves the lesson of the parable from the particular to the general: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This pronouncement is a verbatim repetition of Luke 14:11. In the earlier context, the axiom follows Jesus’ admonition to the guests at a banquet to take the lower seats rather than the places of honor. The same scenario has now been played out in God’s house. The Pharisee separated himself from the others and boasted of his virtue, while the tax collector stood far off and declared his sinfulness. The Pharisee returned to his home without having been made righteous, but the tax collector was accepted before God.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, contrary to some interpretations, is a two-sided parable. To read it as simply a warning against pride, self-sufficiency, or a relationship with God based on one’s own works is to miss the other side of the parable, which connects the Pharisee’s posture before God with his contempt for the tax collector. To miss this connection would be tantamount to emulating the Pharisee’s blindness to the implications of his attitude toward the tax collector. The nature of grace is paradoxical: It can be received only by those who have learned empathy for others. In that regard, grace partakes of the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven (6:36–38). The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him. (Culpepper, R. A. The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 9, pp. 342–343)
The parable recorded in 18:9–14 follows another in 18:1–8. The two parables share the common subject of prayer, but with different emphases for different audiences. As is often the case with Scripture, individuals and churches may need to hear the message of each at different points in their spiritual pilgrimage. The first is a word of encouragement to those who may find themselves in despair; the second is directed to those who err on the side of spiritual self-sufficiency. Whether or not Jesus actually told these parables together in a single setting is not important. Luke’s placement and their order in the lectionary are helpful to identify the pitfalls at the opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. Most congregations will include persons all along the spectrum who struggle with the efficacy of prayer and prayer as an instrument of transformation.
Luke introduced last week’s pericope as one for those who might “lose heart.” This week’s passage is clearly labeled for “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” The latter audience is probably the toughest one preacher speak to, who feel that the biblical exhortations are for sinners “out there.” The Pharisees certainly did not believe Jesus could teach them anything about prayer. The only prayers some Christians ever utter are the set ones of the liturgy.
Christians tend to think of “us” and “them” and to always read Scripture from the vantage point of those who were objects of Jesus’ compassion. Probably the majority of people in our middle-class churches are “elder brothers” (Luke 15), and the Christian is rare who does not in comparison to others feel righteous at sometimes. Few would confess to despising others, but a smug sense of moral superiority is hard to resist. To say that we have a lot of Pharisees in our churches or to be identified in that class is not necessarily a bad thing. Pharisees make good elders, stewards, or deacons. They are the ones who do the work of the church and provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions. Pharisees were devoted to God and righteousness, and most of their faults were the result of over striving for holiness. Their zeal was often misguided, but at least they had zeal in their desire to please God. In his harshest criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus did not condemn them completely: “For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (11:42). Their fundamental problem was that religion became an end rather than a means. In modern terms we can become so busy playing church and being religious that we neglect being Christian in the world.
As in Luke 15, we have two men representing opposite attitudes and spiritual conditions. This is not a case of rich and poor, as both men were probably well-off. They function in different social circles, but neither could be cast as needy in a material sense. They go “up to the temple.” Jerusalem is twenty-five hundred feet above sea level, requiring pilgrims to come “up” to the city, and the temple was the highest point in the city. The temple was a public forum always busy with the traffic of those bringing sacrifices, coming for Scripture study, teaching, or public or private prayer. There is no indication that this was one of the regular hours of prayer. The picture of just the two men in this particular time and place makes the contrast stark.
The self-righteous man “prayed with himself.” The religious man thought he was talking to God but had become so preoccupied with himself that his prayer was in reality a soliloquy. The Pharisee “trusted in himself” and in reality, prayed to himself. The self-sufficient do not need help from God. Luke marks the positions of the men as indicators of their respective attitudes. This man “stands,” repudiating any act such as kneeling or falling prostrate that would suggest a need for humility. He came to praise himself rather than God.
Jesus offered, in contrast to the perfect (in his own mind) Jew, one who belonged to a group that was almost universally despised. Every culture has its despised group. Egos thrive on finding others whose sins are greater or whose piety does not measure up. Jesus used Samaritans, women, and publicans frequently to make a point about God’s universal mercy and love.
Tax officials are not popular in any culture, but Jews who made their living collecting taxes for the Romans were bitterly opposed by Jewish nationalists who viewed them as traitors. There were two kinds of collectors: those who sat at tollbooths and those, like Levi (5:27), who collected property taxes. The latter were probably the more detested, as they bought the collection rights from the Romans and then inflated the assessments, increasing their profit. They exploited their own people to serve the enemy who occupied their land and their own interests.
The Pharisee approached the altar and stood proudly for all, especially God, to admire. In sharp contrast the publican stood at some distance, refusing to look up. He had come to the place where he believed God could be found. Driven by a sense of sin, he came to throw himself on the mercy of God. His attitude would be the same later expressed by the apostle Paul when he wrote “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and declared that he was the “foremost of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). With no pretense, no excuses, he pled for mercy. The lesson of this vignette is that such a plea will not be denied.
The despised tax collector went home, according to Jesus, “justified.” The arrogant Pharisee felt no need for justification and received none. The sinner is made righteous; the self-righteous is exposed as a sinner. Often Jesus leaves parables open-ended; the responsibility for understanding and application was left to the hearer, but in this instance the teacher states the intended moral. The futility of self-exaltation and the potential embarrassment from such foolish acts is a recurring theme in Luke (see 14:1–14; 16:15). Jesus does not condemn all Pharisees or vindicate all publicans. The judgment is rendered according to individual behavior.
What is easily overlooked in this parable is that the protagonist is God. God will not be controlled by humans or human standards. The Pharisee’s presumption was that God would automatically reward piety. The publican assumed condemnation, but God was merciful. (The Good News according to Luke [Atlanta: John Knox, 1984], pp. 283–84). (Bailey, R. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] pp. 432–435)
Humility is certainly out of fashion. In fact, you can almost say that humility is forbidden in the modern world. What is fashionable today is being strong and pushing your own agenda and career. There are so many books written about standing out and leaning forward directed at women and men that we forget the wonder of humility in our modern society. This Sunday would be a good time to celebrate the marvel and strength of humility. Edward Schweizer applies the lesson to our contemporary situation as follows: “The parable sets us free from the notion of achievement, which revolves about what we have accomplished, and from that of incompetence which revolves about a lack of self-esteem, from the enthusiasm of success and the resignation of failure”
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In this guide, we’ll examine the basis of the virtue, the false assumptions people often make regarding humility and how it is an important quality for leaders to have. We’ll also provide you three tips on how to exercise your humility in everyday life.
What Is Humility?
The dictionary definition of humility says: “The quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.”
Humility is considered a state of being, highlighted by your behavior and approach to things. It’s also considered one of the virtues of the human condition, along with kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperance and chastity.
Humility is often thought to occur in the absence of pride. To C.S. Lewis, pride was about competition and therefore not a virtue. Pride manifests in people thinking they are “cleverer” or “richer”, for instance.
On the other hand, in the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition. In humility, you are nothing more and nothing less than the other people around you.
In essence, humility is not about hiding away or about becoming a ‘wallflower’, but it is about the realization your abilities and actions are not better or less. Humility doesn’t require the ranking of things, but it calls for the understanding of the true value or worth of things.
One important point about humility is how it can’t be faked. But this doesn’t mean humility is difficult; in fact, it’s one of the simplest things in the world. But the more you start thinking about how to be humbler, the harder you make it for yourself to actually be humble.
Instead of focusing on the humility within you, you should pay more attention to celebrating the achievements of others. It is by acknowledging others and understanding the universal values we all share that you start becoming more humble. In a way, understanding the vastness of the world around us can make us realize our own value and the humility we should feel.
Follow the beautiful advice by the Dalai Lama:
“I find hope in the darkest of days and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”
It can be helpful to understand the virtue of humility by examining what it isn’t. Perhaps the most common mistake is to associate humility with false modesty.
It’s easy to start lessening your achievements in the face of compliments, thinking this is the humble thing to do. If your manager tells you did a great job, you shouldn’t reply with “no, it wasn’t really me” and “I didn’t really do anything there”. Instead, a humble thing to do would be to take in the praise, thank the manager for it and perhaps acknowledge the other team members that helped you along the way. For instance, you could state, “Thank you, it feels nice to have accomplished the project and meet the objectives. Of course, I’m happy for the effort by Tina and Sam. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The peculiarity of humility is further highlighted by the ease of which it turns to the exact opposite of itself. By highlighting your humility, you are in essence acknowledging a valuable quality in yourself and your humility changes to something else. This is perhaps best highlighted in the lyrics of a hit song from the 1980. The song says, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”.
If you go around telling everyone how humble you are, you most likely are exactly the opposite. Humility isn’t something that requires acknowledgement or recognition. You shouldn’t become humble because you think it’s the right thing to do – humility comes from within and from the acknowledgement, you aren’t any better or any less than other people.
Finally, it can be a mistake to think humility is the opposite of self-confidence. But being humble doesn’t mean you can’t be confident. In fact, by being humble, you can be more confident because you are aware of the value of your actions without thinking they matter more or less.
“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.” – Lao Tzu
As the above quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu shows, humility has been part of the human discussion for a long time. The human condition was often a topic discussed in China, as well as the ancient Greece and it has since been at the center of most religious tradition.
The perception of humility is slightly different depending on the school of thought and tradition. For the ancient Greeks, humility was discussed in the context of pride (hubris) and one of the main stories involving humility was Homer’s The Iliad.
The story examines the behavior of Achilles, an invincible solder who found himself unhappy because King Agamemnon took away his slave woman. While his countrymen are fighting the Trojan, Achilles refuses to fight and eventually starts making his way out of the battlefield.
Meanwhile, a Trojan fighter, Hector, kills Achilles’ friend, which eventually gets Achilles to act in revenge. He kills Hector, ties his body to a chariot and drags it around for nine days.
It’s easy to think today that Achilles is the hero of the story, but actually, the ancient Greeks felt the actions were a consequence of pride. Instead of being arrogant and considering only your own fate, you should instead show humility. To the Greeks, an excess pride will only lead to vengeance from gods and thus humility must be exercised.
On the other hand, religions have added their own distinct interpretations of what being humble means. While many religious traditions continued to favor humility as a way of avoiding a punishment from god, they approached it not through pride like the Greeks, but by rejection egotism. The idea in Judaism and Christianity was more focused on recognizing the limitations of humans, compared to god.
For Christians, Jesus Christ, who decided to endure the earthly humiliation and punishment, just to allow greater redemption to take place, often personifies humility.
“To possess self-confidence and humility at the same time is called maturity.” – Jack Welch
While the religious tradition still holds true in modern society, humility is not only viewed through the religious lens. Humility has become a central theme in discussions about leadership as well.
The popular notion has long been that you have to step up and be a bit boastful in order to get ahead. Big sporting stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Cam Newton talk about their own abilities with pride and arrogance. There are also leaders, such as Donald Trump, who focus on their greatness. These types of leaders highlight what they’ve done and achieved, boasting about their past and future accomplishments.
But is humility a bad quality on leaders? If we examine it through science, the evidence is starting to be evident: humility makes you a better leader.
In a study by the University of Maine, researchers found that “humility was the most strongly linked (personality trait) with helpfulness”. Furthermore, the study found humility didn’t just make people more helpfulness, but also ensured they enjoyed better work ethic, generosity and reliable relationships.
According to evolutionary scientists, the trait, which requires a person to put others’ needs first, has survived because humans have always required co-operation to survive. While the need for co-operation has changed from surviving the savannahs to staying alive in the corporate world, the benefits of humility, empathy and helpfulness remain a key for success.
This ability to put your ego on hold and to empathize with other people has been further linked with good leaders. In 2014, scientist studied 1,500 leaders and their employees. The big headline finding of the study concluded, “humble leaders get more commitment”.
The study found that a leader’s ability to demonstrate strong self-insight and humility provides them with a proactive approach. Furthermore, when employees experience this type of leadership, they are more committed to work.
The researchers recommended leadership development programs should start paying more attention in self-reflection. Karoline Hofslett Kopperud, researcher at BI Norwegian Business School, said, “[training in self-reflection] will give the leader a better understanding of how his or her behavior is perceived and interpreted by the employees.”
The ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and to appreciate the deed, instead of the position, can help in gaining more trust. Trust, in turn, is essential for the creation of good teams. In essence, a good leader should understand that a bigger paycheck or a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean you are more valuable to the organization than the other employees.
Greater humility in leaders can help you open up to other opinions and viewpoints, which will help you lead better. The creative boost from humility means you:
• Don’t assume you know it better or that you have nothing to input.
• Are interested in what others have to say and offer because you understand everyone can add something to the project.
• You also understand how to measure the value of an idea or a practice. You don’t assume certain things are automatically better than others, but you test and evaluate to find the underlying cause of real value.
A Catalyst study into six different countries and their employees found an interesting link between altruistic behavior and innovation. Innovation went up in these teams, the more humility the management showed, creating a welcoming environment for people. The image shows how creative behavior went up, if managers showed humility.
How to practice humility. Considering how humility can be a helpful trait to possess, it’s useful to train your ability to be humble. In the era of social media, which feeds your ego, regular exercise in humility is worth trying.
Learn the value the deed itself
As we’ve explained, humility doesn’t mean you need to shy away from responsibilities or stop doing things that might provide you the recognition amongst colleagues or friends. But instead, you must start understanding the value of the action itself.
Don’t think good actions as vehicles for receiving more fame or recognition. On the other hand, don’t hide away from good deeds just to avoid the spotlight. But consider the action and what value it would provide others.
For example, if your manager says there’s a big project that needs to be done, you shouldn’t start evaluating whether to take the lead in terms of what is means to you. You need to evaluate the deed for what it does to the company or your colleagues. Don’t shy away just because you know you’ll be noticed or that you should take the role because you know it’ll bring you rewards. A humble person would take it and understand the value for the company and the happiness for your manager for getting it done.
Furthermore, when you do tasks, remember no success story happens with a single person. As the great innovator Henry Ford said:
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Do the expected without boasting about it
Follow the wisdom of Winston S. Churchill, who said:
“Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.”
Related to the other point is the exercise of doing your tasks without making a big number out of it. The action matters and is valuable by itself, not you doing it.
A great example of humility in doing what is expected of you comes from the World War II generation. Soldiers have repeatedly said they simply did what was expected of them and that’s that. The sacrifice wasn’t for fame and glory, as the stakes were too high for it – young men risked their lives for the greater good.
Tom Brokaw writes in his book The Greatest Generation about the idea of fulfilling one’s duty. Brokaw states, “The Word War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it.” Indeed, if you listen to the interviews of veterans, it’s never about what they did. It is about the collective responsibility and duty.
Listening to the stories of these heroic people in these tragic circumstances is something that can teach each of us humility.
Stop competing over achievements
Finally, you can exercise humility by letting go of competition. Not all competition, but specifically the competition over achievements. Competing over achievements is linked to the excessive pride discussed in the first section – the “I’m richer, better, cleverer, etc.”
If you are in a conversation with people and someone tells a story of a thing they’ve done, don’t “one-up” it with your own story. For instance, if the person says they recently travelled to Italy and spent time in a lovely four-star hotel, you shouldn’t start boasting about a better experience you had in a five-star hotel.
Instead, learn to appreciate other people and their experiences. In fact, listen to people’s stories with an open mind and always find something you can learn from them. It doesn’t need to be a tangible skill, but it can be about their approach to life and relaxation, for instance.
Be happy for other people and enjoy their experiences just as much as you enjoy your own. Don’t expect your experiences to be any more worthy than others. In fact, understand everyone’s affairs are valuable, nothing more or nothing less.
If you notice someone else is doing the ‘one-upping’ to you, don’t be mad or join in the competition. Allow them to take the moment in the sun and be the virtuous person who avoids useless competition. Keep in mind the advice from Nido Quebein, who said:
“Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with other people.”
In conclusion “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis Humility is a characteristic often talked about when great leaders are mentioned. Philosophers have praised it since the early dawn of humanity and religions around the world are eager to teach the value of it. Yet, it is a tricky virtue; one that can quickly take a different shape if you aren’t careful with its application. Humility can be exercised every day through simple actions: by focusing on other people, by examining your inner strengths and weaknesses, and by being aware of the common value we all have no matter what our role or position.
Humility is not the absence of desire or confidence. You don’t need to shy away from responsibilities or even the limelight in order to be humble. But you do need to acknowledge you aren’t any better or any less than the people around you, and it is the group contribution that often helps us achieve things, whether or not we did most of the work ourselves. (https://www.cleverism.com/virtue-of-humility-leadership/)
Humility is often characterized as genuine gratitude and lack of arrogance, a modest view of one’s self. However, the biblical definition of humility goes beyond this. Humility is a critical and continuous emphasis of godliness in the Bible, as we are called upon to be humble followers of Christ and trust in the wisdom and salvation of God. Let us be humble before our creator for the gift of life we have been given.
Biblical humility is grounded in the nature of God. The Father descends to help the poor and afflicted; the incarnate Son manifests humility from birth until His crucifixion. The coupled usage of "meek" and "humble in heart" in Matthew 11:29 emphasizes Christ's humility before humankind, whom he came to serve and His submission before God. Humility and meekness are often interrelated as both are righteous traits for serving the will of God.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;” Proverbs 3:5
The profound Bible verse of Proverbs 3:5 is an excellent summation of the biblical meaning of humility. To be humble, we must have faith that God will lead us in the best way to live and what to avoid in temptation. We are to put complete trust in the Lord and not deceive ourselves with vanity or lust. We should lean on the understanding, wisdom, and divinity of God to show us the righteous path through prayer, meditation, fasting, and other faithful practices. In order to do this, we must have the initial requirement of humility to open our hearts and withdraw from the arrogance of our ego.
"Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life." Proverbs 22:4
Proverbs 22:4 gives us a deeper look into the biblical meaning of humility as we are given a direct explanation. "Humility is the fear of the Lord," provides a very precise definition. Not only does being humble consist of trusting God and following his will, but furthermore fearing the consequences of neglecting His commands for truth, love, work ethic, mercy, and beyond. Humility is recognizing the magnificent power of God and the potential retribution He will condemn upon us if we do not aim our purpose towards righteousness.
Humility in the Bible
- Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:3-11
Does it seem that humility is disappearing from society today and is being replaced with pride?
Opposed to the Proud
The antonym to pride is humility or humbleness, and this makes sense of James statement that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). Grace is like water…it always seeks the lowest areas. It is those who are abased that will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be abased someday (Matt 23:12), however “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). Clearly, “humility comes before honor” (Prov 18:12). The order therefore is humility first…exaltation later…probably much later, like in the Kingdom, so James tells us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). God tested ancient Israel by bringing them into and through the wilderness. The Word of God says that the Lord “has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deut 8:2). David wrote, “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Sam 22:28). Time and time again, the people and kings of Israel and Judah humbled themselves, and scripture records the fact that “the wrath of the Lord turned from him, so as not to make a complete destruction” (2 Chron 2:12). Repentance takes humility, which is why God is opposed to the proud.
It is better to humble ourselves voluntarily because if God does it for us, it’s a lot more painful. If we willingly humble ourselves, we’ll better endure the persecution or humiliation that comes from sharing Christ. It is unavoidable that people will be offended, but for some, it will be the sweet savor of eternal life, but others will be offended by it (2 Cor 2:15-17). People that are willing to suffer shame for the cause of Christ typically “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet 3:8). Humble people generally “Live in harmony with one another” and are not “haughty, but associate with the lowly” (Rom 12:16a). A humble person won’t respond in kind or revile back when reviled, but rather, they are always “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). I would like to emphasize the part where it says “with gentleness and respect,” so whether a person is saved or not, we should always respond with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). It is by our love that others can identify who Jesus’ disciples are (John 13:34-35), and humility is a byproduct of love.
A person that is truly humble will “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). What that looks like is a humble person doesn’t interrupt others when they’re talking, they don’t always have to have the last word, and they don’t belittle others they disagree with. A humble person might disagree over something but they won’t be disagreeable with those they disagree with. The Apostle Peter urged the younger people to “be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5). With the coming of the Lord, it is said that God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). Think about this: The God of the Universe, Who “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). This is all the more reason we ought to have “a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet 1:22). Humble people will find it easy to “Love one another with brotherly affection [and] Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10).
If you have not yet trusted in Christ, Zephaniah the Prophet speaks to you to “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord” (Zeph 2:3). Just as God told the Jews who were being held in captivity, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13), God can be found if you truly seek Him with your whole heart. Let today be your day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2). What the Lord said “to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), He says to you; “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28), and “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul” (Matt 11:29). It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, Jesus says,“whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37b). Come to the Savior today because tomorrow may be too late (Heb 9:27; Rev 1:7). This is all the more reason Christians “must live in harmony, be sympathetic, love as brothers, and be compassionate and humble” (1 Pet 3:8). (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2019/04/26/whatever-happened-to-humility/)
Seeking humility is a funny endeavor. The minute we think we’re gaining humility, we need to start the process again. It can be tempting to brag about acts of humility. It can also be tempting to step aside and help someone else forward just because we’re being noticed as we help. Humility isn’t pure unless our motivation is correct and that motive should be seeking to help others for no other reason except to help.
As C.S. Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Any time that we put “ourselves” and “our thoughts” in between us and any situation, we’re not portraying true humility. By outer appearances, we are helping. So, it’s not all bad. After all, it’s very difficult to get everything right at once. We are all flawed human beings. On the inside, we may be thinking what else is good about this task besides just helping. Possibly, we want someone to take notice of our “selfless” deed. However, we are much more at peace when we just help and forget about how it affects us.
Since God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), we should want to seek to be as truly humble as we can because we need all of the grace that we can get. I know I do. In addition, it’s very tiring to always seek what we want. Therefore, the goal becomes to seek to help other people and forget about us, at least for a little while. When we do that, we find that God takes care of our needs and worries or at least makes them seem pale in comparison. Worrying over our own problems does nothing to really help anyway. Placing ourselves in God’s capable hands and trusting that He won’t let go no matter what is happening is much more restful and freeing.
When we are living with a humble attitude we’re usually living with more of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) showing in our lives—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we find ourselves thinking the opposite of these traits, we are living selfish and self-centered. Denying ourselves and our own desires and letting one or more of the fruit of the Spirit traits come forth really is the way to live peacefully. I don’t think that God minds if we voice our opinions but if we stubbornly stick to those opinions, we’re like a little kid that places his hands over his ears when he doesn’t want to hear what a parent is saying.
Jesus said to deny ourselves and follow Him but sometimes we can deny ourselves for the wrong reasons. Three ways that we might have a tendency to do that are:
1. Denying ourselves in order to make a point.
If we find ourselves saying something like, “Whatever. We’ll do it your way,” we’re not denying ourselves at all. In fact, we’re strongly reiterating that our way is probably better. We are denying ourselves to make a final effort of making our point.
2. Denying ourselves to feel better about ourselves.
If we find ourselves saying something like, “I’ll do this because you want to do it,” and we’re sincere so there’s no problem. But if we really were sincere, we probably wouldn’t phrase it like that. We would simply say, “Okay, let’s do it.” The previous way is more of a grumble and complain. We probably said it just to feel like the better person. We are denying ourselves to feel like we are a nice person. This is people-pleasing, it’s not humility.
3. Denying ourselves to have an excuse to be lazy.
And, if we find ourselves agreeing with an opinion that we don’t share or not voicing our own opinion at all, we’re using a keeping-the-peace mentality as an excuse to be lazy. We’re denying ourselves because we are afraid. Again, we are in a people-pleasing mindset.
The above examples are nothing more than false humility or letting someone else have their way so that we look or feel better. We’re putting on a mask and when we are wearing any kind of mask, we’re not being humble. We are hiding.
Denying ourselves should never mean hiding ourselves or making it easier on ourselves. Our opinions should be shared honestly and fully. We can speak up for God and His principles. However, we should never do those things in a brash or angry way. God’s way is usually to speak the truth clearly but softly so that people will have a chance to hear what we’re saying. Anger will turn people off before we have a chance to say two words.
True humility is being who God created us to be and not hiding our opinions. It’s not cramming our opinions down someone’s throat. We always have to remember that although we can gain wisdom from reading the bible and praying, we will never have all of the answers or know everything. That is God’s job description and his thoughts are much higher than our thoughts. (https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/3-things-christians-get-wrong-about-humility.html)
St. Augustine (354-430) wrote: “Do you wish to rise? Then begin by descending. Do you desire to construct a lofty tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” He also wrote: “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” Father Henry Fehren considers humility a valued virtue: “Humility does not mean servility, abjectness, loss of dignity, unthinking obedience, cowardice, groveling, self-hatred, or a denial of truth or talent. Humility is the recognition of who we are in relation to God and to other people. It is even a humble virtue, for it is not the greatest of virtues. Yet it is the foundation of other virtues.” Fehren then cites another saying of St. Augustine on humility: “There is not a higher road than charity, and none but the humble walk therein.” (Father Henry Fehren, U.S. Catholic [November 1983] p. 40)
In a series of published 1960 radio talks, priest-psychologist J. Alphonse Malone, C.S.B., had one titled, “Play—Practice for Living.” He pointed out how play enables us to practice certain skills in a world of make-believe where we do not have to pay the consequences for living in the real world. Malone writes: “Because play is practice in a little world, in a micro-sphere where reality is suspended, we can acquire skills and strength, and prudence, and adroitness to come back into the real world and live in it more successfully.”
For example, the game of golf can be just an escape activity from stress in our work world, or a more meaningful activity to improve one’s technical skills, to develop better interpersonal relations with other people, and to practice virtues. Golf requires players not only to follow precise rules about equipment and course procedures but also to observe specific rules of etiquette and respect for others. Golf provides players with an abundance of opportunities to learn humility. “If you top the ball or hit a tree or something like that,” Malone writes, “you must learn to accept your mistakes as such. Or if you have a day in which you can’t do anything right, you must learn to live with your failures.” When golfers hit a bad shot, they cannot deny the outcome—it’s there for their playing partners or spectators to see. It matters how golfers respond to bad shots. On the one hand, if they throw a temper tantrum or make lame alibis, they reinforce emotional immaturity. On the other hand, if they accept their failure gracefully and concentrate more on correcting their mistake, they grow in maturity. When played by the rules, the game of golf offers participants numerous opportunities to practice honesty, learn humility, and develop respect. “In learning these in such an inconsequential thing as a golf game there is a ‘carry over’ to real life.” Thus, play is an important part of our life, and “has a true and positive meaning in terms of bettering the individual.” Professional golfer Billy Casper once said: “Golf puts a man’s character on the anvil and his richest qualities—patience, poise, and restraint—to the flame.” Billy Casper would probably agree that humility could be added to that list of qualities. (J. A. Malone, C.S.B., Catching Up With Oneself [Windsor, Ontario: Assumption University of Windsor, 1960], pp. 49-52, out of print)
Anyone who has taught in school knows from experience how humbling teaching can be. No matter how perfectly teachers prepare a lesson plan and apply it during a class, they can easily be humbled by a student’s response. For example, a teacher asked his class what the chemical formula for water was. One pupil answered, “HIJKLMNO.” “What are you talking about?” inquired the teacher. The pupil replied, “Yesterday, you said it was H to O.” A geography instructor called on a student named Alice and asked what she knew about the English Channel. “I don’t know,” said Alice. “That channel is certainly not on our television set.” One time a history teacher told a student named George to go to the map and find North America. George went to the map, pointed to it, and said, “Here it is.” “Correct,” the teacher remarked. “Now, class, who discovered America?” The class answered, “George did.” A college professor was instructing his class about writing essays. “There are two words that I want you never to use,” he said. “One is ‘swell,’ and the other is ‘lousy.’” “Good advice, professor,” one student blurted out. “What are they?”
Besides never knowing what kind of answers their students may give back to them, teachers stand before a class like an open book. Within a few meetings, students soon discover every cliché their teachers use and every mannerism they have. Students not only learn what these are, but also become proficient in recreating them whenever they want to imitate their teachers. Teachers must have a strong sense of humor and a solid virtue of humility in order to enjoy schoolwork.
Sometimes the Lord sends people into our lives to puncture the balloons of our pride with an arrow of reality. The story is told of a well-known industrialist who was a self-made multi-millionaire. He was hosting a luncheon to present his ideas on sustaining libraries in slum areas. However, a specialist in that field cut in with the rather dismissive remark, “Excuse me, sir, but it is my understanding that you never attended any university.” The self-educated entrepreneur replied, “Yes. That is true, much to my sorrow. However, to help lessen your fears—all my secretaries have Ph.D.’s.”
A magazine anecdote focuses on a minister who was helping his mother move to an apartment. He later informed her about the contents of two shoeboxes he had moved: “Mother,” he said, “I found four eggs in one of them.” She explained that every time he gave a sermon she did not like, she’d put an egg in the box. Her son proudly thought to himself: “I’ve been a preacher for many, many years. Four eggs isn’t bad.” He then asked his mother about the other shoebox that had $635 in it. “Oh, that one,” his mother replied. “When I had a dozen eggs, I would sell them and put the money in the second shoe box.” (Reminisce [July/August, 2004] p 60)
Ulysses S. Grant, even when Commander of the Armies in the West, always dressed simply in the uniform of a Private. After his victory in Vicksburg, he arrived in Washington to accept his appointment as General of All Military Forces. He sought a room at the famed Willard Hotel, because it was so centrally located. The lobby’s chairs and tables were a sea of gold braid and gold swords. The reception clerk looked disdainfully at the shabby figure before him. “The only thing available,” the clerk said, “is a small room in the attic storage area.” Grant nodded and signed the registration book. The clerk happened to glance down at the signature and blanched white. Here was the most famous person in America and the hero of the hour. “Forgive me, sir,” he stammered. “The Willard is proud to offer you its very finest suite.” Grant shook his head, “No, no. I’m sure the room you gave me will do very well.” (Story submitted by Rev. Leo Hetzler, CSB)
Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant physicists and mathematicians who ever lived. One story about Einstein centers on a little girl who lived near Princeton University. For a long time she was having trouble with arithmetic. Suddenly, though, she began improving, and her mother inquired why. The little girl said that she heard about a professor in town who was good at numbers. So she rang his doorbell one day to ask for help, and he’d been teaching her every day since. When the mother asked whether she knew his name, the little girl replied: “It’s something like Einstein.”
Indeed, one of the qualities that made Einstein a truly great person was his humility. Too often we see people who are very gifted or talented, and yet are not considered great persons. Why? Often because of their arrogance and egotistical pride. It seems that we instinctively consider humility an essential quality for authentic greatness in a person. John Ruskin thought so when he wrote: “The true test of a great man is his humility.” Conversely, we readily agree that pride is indeed the first of the capital or deadly sins because it is the principal source and cause of many other sins.
When Sister Thea Bowman died at age 52 on March 30, 1989 at her home in Canton, Mississippi, her longtime friend, Bishop Joseph A. Francis of Newark, N.J., said, “She was one of the most remarkable women of our time.” He recalled how she addressed the American bishops at their national meeting in 1988, got them to stand, hold hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” At the end, Sister Thea reminded them to be grateful for the wonderful women in their lives. Bishop Francis called her “a feminist without being an antagonist. She lived within the structures of society and the church, and never blamed the institution. Instead she used her talents to better the institution, to challenge the institution.”
Sister Thea was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, on December 29, 1937. She was the granddaughter of a slave; her father was a physician, and her mother a teacher. Sister Thea became a Catholic in her early teens after her parents sent her to a Catholic High School founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She joined this community at age 15 to become the only black woman in the order. She earned a doctorate in English literature and linguistics in 1972, taught at several high schools and colleges, and became a consultant for intercultural awareness for the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi. Sister Thea was also noted for her lectures and workshops on black Catholic culture and life, and for her talents as a liturgist, singer, writer on spirituality, and artist.
Although Sister Thea was afflicted with bone cancer in 1984 and became more debilitated as the disease advanced, she continued to do what she could from a wheelchair. In 1988 she received the American Cancer Society’s Courage Award at the White House. Indeed, her courage was matched by her humility. She had immense pride in her black heritage balanced by a strong sense of realism. In an interview with U.S. Catholic magazine two weeks before Sister Thea died from cancer, she spoke of how the sick and the well can learn from each other: “People who are well can learn from the sick new ways of thinking, relating, and accepting. Sick people can teach the well an appreciation for health and movement and life.” Because she was brought up in a traditional black family, Sister Thea viewed death as a part of life—a going home. She sang some verses of a song she sang at the funerals of both of her parents: “I’ve done my work; I’ve sung my song. I’ve done some good; I’ve done some wrong, and now I go where I belong. The Lord has willed it so.”
Humility is hardly a popular virtue in our age, stresses aggressiveness, competition, and upward mobility. Nonetheless, we find humility reasserting itself through such writers as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. In his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled, he begins chapter five with this statement about humility: “Humility is a true knowledge of oneself as one is. That is a paraphrase from a book written by an anonymous fourteenth-century monk, called Cloud of Unknowing. It is a profound statement, and an essential one to grasp in the search for self-knowledge.”
Dr. Peck then uses some examples to explain genuine humility. On the one hand, was he to say that he is a lousy writer, that would not be true because he is a relatively successful writer. His false statement would amount to pseudo humility. On the other hand, was he to say that he is a good golfer, that would be the height of arrogance because he is actually at best a mediocre golfer. Dr. Peck concludes that genuine humility is always realistic. (M. Scott Peck, Further Along the Road Less Traveled [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993] ch 5)
Pseudo humility is often confused with real humility because of humility’s roots in the Latin word humus, meaning ground. To be humble came to mean, “to be lowly or near the ground.” There is some truth here, particularly if we see ourselves in relation to God. However, when we over-emphasize this truth to the point of distortion, we end up with a denial of our gifts and artificial self-effacing statements such as, “I’m no good,” or “I don’t deserve this.” Such self-depreciation devalues our true worth and insults God who gave us our gifts.
The other extreme from the virtue of true humility is exaggerated pride, whereby we attribute too much of what we are and do to ourselves and not enough to God. Cartoons sometimes caricature proud people as having inflated egos and a pretentious sense of self-importance. In the same vein, a humorous fable tells how a woodpecker pecked at the trunk of a tree at the same moment a lightning bold struck and knocked it down. The woodpecker flew away saying, “I didn’t know there was so much power in my beak.”
On May 16, 2004, Pope John Paul II canonized Gianna Beretta Molla—a wife, a mother of four children, a medical doctor, and a lover of opera, art, beauty and culture. Her story is unique because her husband Pietro Molla and their four children are still alive and were present at her canonization. So far Gianna’s story seems to be that of a modern suburban “super mom.” Why, then, was she elevated to sainthood? Before she married Pietro, Dr. Gianna considered her medical work among mothers, babies, the elderly, and the poor a “mission” and a form of “Catholic Action.” After her marriage to Pietro, Gianna amazingly found ways to balance the demands of being a wife, mother, and doctor with her passion for life, compassion for the poor, and love of culture.
In September 1961, Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child when she was diagnosed with a serious fibroma in the uterus that required surgery. The surgeon suggested an abortion in order to save her own life. A few days before the child was due, Gianna told the doctors: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child—I insist on it. Save the baby.” On the morning of April 21, 1962, her daughter Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts to save the mother, on the morning of April 28, after repeated exclamations of “Jesus, I love you,” Dr. Gianna died. She was 39 years old.
During her life and death, Gianna’s attitude was that of Christ who “emptied himself...took the form of a slave... he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8) What God the Son did for us, the doctor and mother Gianna Beretta Molla did for her child Gianna Emanuela. “Because of this, God highly exalted him (Christ) and bestowed on him the name above every other name.” (Phil 2:9) Similarly, the Holy Father has exalted Gianna and bestowed on her the title of Saint. Her humble yet heroic life challenges the modern world to live by the highest gospel values of a consistent ethic of respect for life, from the earliest moments to the final moments of human life. Most of us are not ready for such heroic action, but we can take the next step to prepare for a heroic surrender of self for the good of others.
In the fifth Harry Potter book, author J.K. Rowling introduces a new character to Hogwarts School. Dolores Umbridge is a pompous, power-hungry professor who prides herself on knowing and following all the rules of the Wizard world to the smallest detail. Like the stereotypical Pharisee, she loves posting new rules and leaving no stone unturned to find anyone who breaks any rule, no matter how trite. We are led to believe that she is not evil herself, nor in league with the evildoers led by Voldemort, but her arrogance and pride have blinded her to both the evil and the good around her so that she can no longer tell them apart, a real danger for all those whose self-righteousness becomes their major focus. In the end, she loses her grip on both her power and her mind.
There seems to be a lack of humility among the top executives of some corporations. U. S. News & World Report (1/19/04) points out that the average pay of a chief executive of a major U. S. company no longer bears any relationship to performance. From 1982 until today, executive pay has risen 42 times that of the average wage. Nowadays the typical chief executive makes 411 times what the average company worker does. Moreover, even when executives quit or are forced out, they are lavishly compensated. The average severance package for a departing CEO of a major company last year was approximately $16.5 million. Such amounts were paid even when the executives presided over financial disasters and losses.
Although tax collectors in Jesus’ day and tax collectors in our day are not entirely equivalent, both are generally viewed with disapproval. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (4/8/04) observes that a great deal of the frustration that people have with the overall tax system today is how complicated it is. The IRS’s Inspector General examined 23 tax returns that were prepared by IRS agents at assistance centers nationwide. They found that 19 of them had been completed incorrectly. Senator Richard Shelby complained, “How can we expect taxpayers to understand and comply with the complexities of the tax code when IRS employees themselves have so much trouble understanding and explaining it?”
You have to wonder if the Pharisee was boasting because he wanted an award to recognize the exemplary kind of life that he had lived. Our world today is filled with awards ceremonies. The BBC (3/5/04) notes that there is even now an “Awards Awards.” The event was held at the Dorchester Hotel in London this past March and was sponsored by Awards World magazine. The purpose of the event was to hand out awards to members of the British awards-presentation industry for the year’s best award shows. A spokesperson for the event commented that everyone likes to win an award, even people who give out awards for a living. About 1,000 different awards ceremonies vied for honors at the event. Although the event organizers called their ceremony a success, they indicated that their awards event is not eligible to win any awards at their own Awards Awards.
Jesus’ parable forces us to reconsider who the real hero is and who the real villain is. Last year the American Film Industry issued a list of the all-time top 100 movie heroes and villains. The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was ranked as the number 22 villain (for his role in The Terminator) and was ranked number 48 in the hero listing (for his role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
Corrie ten Boom had a particular image that she liked to use to describe the way that God miraculously forgives our sins, such as God did for that tax collector. In Tramp for the Lord, Corrie ten Boom says that when God forgives us, it is as though God takes our sins and casts them into the deepest ocean. Then God posts a sign that says, “No Fishing Allowed.”
One of the reasons that many people had a difficult time perceiving Jesus as the Messiah was because of the humility that he displayed. The general wisdom was that the Messiah would appear amid grandeur and might. Jesus, however, completely reversed those expectations. In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey reminds us that when Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to the United States several years ago, the logistics for that trip were daunting. She arrived with four thousand pounds of luggage, including two complete outfits for every occasion she had been scheduled for; a mourning outfit in case someone died while she was here; forty pints of blood; and her own personal toilet seat covers, made out of white kid leather. In addition to her luggage, the queen brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and an assortment of other attendants. Her brief visit cost more than twenty million dollars. In contrast, Jesus, the King of universe, entered our world and lived in our midst humbly, exhibiting none of that luxury.
“Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.” (Benjamin Franklin)
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (Anne Lamott)
“See what you lack and not what you have, for that is the quickest path to humility.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)
“Should you ask me, ‘What is the first thing in religion?’ I should reply: The first, second and third thing therein is humility.” (St. Augustine) .
“Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.” (Jonathan Edwards) .
“After crosses and losses men grow humbler and wiser.” (Benjamin Franklin) .
“Humility is the first of virtues – for other people!” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) .
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord.
People: Let us take refuge in him.
Leader: Let the upright in heart glory.
People: Let us worship God.
Loving God, we confess that we often forsake you until we need something. We don’t take refuge in you or depend on you for what we need. Instead, we depend on ourselves. Forgive our transgressions and teach us your ways. Let us see clearly your will for us and let us see that we walk this journey together. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
We bring before you our gifts and offerings, O Lord, for the glory of your Kingdom. Use us and our gifts to your glory and teach us how to make disciples of all nations. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.
Hear our prayer, gracious God, as we bring to you the deepest concerns and the greatest joys of our hearts this day. We are confident that you hear us when we pray to you.
We pray for blessing on those in our world who are hungry, in poverty, and suffering in mind, body, or spirit. Give us the strength and courage to open our eyes to the plight of our brothers and sisters and to help them in their need. Restore your people to a sense of unity with one another.
Renew us in our nation, that we may seek the ways of justice and peace. Give us the courage to confront and extinguish prejudice and hate, so that we may be governed by truth and respect. Nourish us with your Word so that we may live in your ways, following your guidance for us.
We pray for our congregation. We thank you for the blessings you have given us, and ask for your guidance as we seek to be even more faithful to your will. We pray for those whose sufferings and illnesses we know, and for those whose needs we do not know. We ask your special touch on those who are grieving, alone, or who need to feel your love. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.