To live with humility
Humanity has a long-standing struggle with humility. We seem not to like it. We see it biblical and other ancient manuscripts but, also, just as much in today’s world, where some politicians seemingly have no capacity for admitting they are wrong, and who would always have the last word, even if that last word were not the truth. But it is not just politicians. Most of us are the same, because we have a way of thinking about ourselves that makes us feel special or privileged. Whilst this can occur to a widespread degree in human organisations – including the Church – it also happens in the innermost hearts of all.
One group of biblical characters who struggled with humility were our own spiritual ancestors: the disciples. Jesus had to rebuke them, check them, wade into their conceited squabbles. When we struggle ourselves, it is good to remember the disciples and Christ instructing them – and, through them, us.
Christ told us that we should be like little children. What he meant was, as Sister Wendy Beckett put it, to see with the eyes of a child, and to respond with the mind of an adult. This can be very difficult, because we must put aside our own good notion of ourselves and walk directly into dangerous waters. Do we think we’re very spiritual, or that our prayer life is better than others? Do we scoff at other liturgies and lambast other forms of worship because they are not our own? Do we feel special because we pray the divine office for longer than others or because we read such and such a saint? It is easy to do these things when we lose our way, when we forget to be like little childten. But Christ tells us to see as children, to see with new eyes, to be little, and to take care that we remain little, because that is what we are in his eyes. Loved, yes, but little. We do not have the capacity to understand like he does.
In Catholic ministry on social media, it can often be fellow Catholics who most despise other Catholic posts. This is because we have not remained open to Christ’s resounding call to humility. In biblical times, there were the same people, and Sundays Gospel makes us remember that what we see today is nothing new:
“Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”
The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Firstly, notice that the one full of pride begins his prayer by setting himself apart from others, placing himself on a pedestal. This Pharisee still exists in the Church and in the world, dressing himself in costly robes and putting on a show of his greatness, whilst believing in his own rhetoric. “I am not like the rest of mankind.” This is a blindness to which all humans are susceptible. And in the case of the Pharisee, this mindset becomes charged with far more potential for dangerous mass confusion and evil when his cloak is a belief system, and his fine robes are the rules and regulations of that system.
Christ uses this Sunday’s parable to remind us to do what the Baptist did, which is to diminish ourselves, so that we can be filled with God. “I must diminish, he must become greater”, said John. The tax collector had a realistic view of himself and saw that he came before God as a sinner. Saying those words of invocation: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”, he poured out his soul to God as one in need of grace. Conversely, what the Pharisee was most in need of was himself, his own ego. And he couldn’t raise his ego on the pedestal without trampling on those around him.
We have all met those who trample on others in order to climb higher, and perhaps we conclude that they’re just unpleasant game-players. But, as correct or incorrect as this may be, this Gospel reminds us that such pride seeps into the human heart to such a devastating degree that they believe their own construct. This Pharisee believed it. He had to have done, since his own pride had reached even his personal prayer life.
It’s important to remember the old saying, that the devil can master much, but not humility. For the works of darkness, humility is a powerful sword. Maybe, like most attributes, it has to be worked at, developed as a spiritual weapon. And the devil will be extremely cunning in the way he introduces pride into people’s prayer life, in the way he lowers those defences by tiny, indiscernible increments at a time, until we are not coming to God like little children, but instead viewing our own relationship with God as a status symbol, as a means to stepping on other people’s heads.
Let us, dear Lord, come to you in our work and our prayer and our conversations and our rest, with humility. Let us hold the pharisaic model as one to avoid, and please give us the grace to remain as little children, and to be thankful for you. Amen.