Sunday, August 28, 2016

Getting Low: the Humble Approach to Spiritual Growth

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the house of Levi (1573)

Learning how to parallel park. Balancing a checkbook. Fixing a flat tire. There are certain skills that all of us learn as we age, that we need to know in order to be an adult.

One of the most important of these is perhaps how to behave at a dinner party. I remember when I was in seminary that we even had a seminar one afternoon on the proper use of cutlery, how to make small talk, how to eat without being obnoxious – that sort of thing. I’m not sure all of the lessons completely took – in fact, I know they didn’t. But even though we forgot some of the particulars, it was helpful to be aware of how expectations and perceptions often vary in social situations.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is attending a dinner party, and as we are told, he is being observed carefully. No doubt the wealthy Pharisees not only wanted to see what this backwoods preacher had to say but also how he behaved in formal situations. His table etiquette was surely under scrutiny. But as he so often did, Jesus defied expectations – rather than talk clumsily about spiritual things directly, he instead conveys the message of the Gospel through the situation at hand.

The bit of wisdom that Jesus imparts is familiar sounding enough to us. Take the lower place; appeal to the poor rather than to the rich; the last shall be first and the first shall be last. At first mention, it sounds like a sort of sophisticated posturing – as if the sophisticated person, rather than boast or brag, should instead adopt a modest, even self-effacing attitude, thereby winning the esteem of one’s peers and the gratitude of one’s inferiors. There’s a kind of Machiavellian logic by which Jesus’s words can be interpreted.

But of course, Jesus is not giving a blueprint for how to impress others, certainly not to the Pharisees. Instead, he’s pointing out their deficiency in a particular virtue – a virtue which, if I may say, is often sorely lacking in our modern world today. That virtue? Humility. There is perhaps no virtue that is more completely misunderstood or even dismissed out of hand by our modern mindset than humility. While all of us understand the practical good that comes from the virtues of courage or patience or honesty, the virtue of humility is sometimes discounted as just not in keeping with the way the world works. If you want to get ahead, the thinking goes, you have to promote yourself, you have to speak to your strengths, and get your own voice above the fray, and humility won’t get you anywhere.

But humility properly understood is not about assuming a meek attitude in relation to others; instead, true humility is something much closer to authentic self-knowledge. It is understanding ourselves as we truly are, good and bad. The word “humility” has its roots in the Latin humus or that which is from the earth beneath us. Rather than grinding ourselves into the ground it's perhaps best to view humility as a virtue that allows us to see where we stand and which helps keep us grounded. Much like a golfer has to get low to the ground to see the landscape in front of him and get a good view of his putt, so too does humility help us to understand where we stand, in relation to God and to others.

Humility, at its core, is about keeping our own egos in check, about keeping ourselves within the bounds of love. Humility helps us to remember the big picture – that there is a God, and we are not him. But we are his creations, and each of us has value, we are lovable, because he loves us. We are humble if we embody this in our words and actions and our treatment of others – not using others to make ourselves feel better or climb the social ladder – but loving them for who they are.

I’d like to propose two basic ways that each of us can grow in the virtue of humility. First, I think we can be more humble the more we seek to curtail our judgments of other people. It’s so easy to form negative opinions about others – whether it’s someone we don’t know at all and just see walking around on campus or someone whom we know better and interact with, all of us have a tendency on times to focus on their weaknesses and faults rather than on them themselves. The humble person however first recognizes they are flawed themselves, that in the eyes of God, we have much room for growth as well. When we operate from humility, we recognize that none of us are in a place to judge and we’re able to open our hearts to patience and forgiveness

A second way I think we can be more humble is in deepening our trust in God, especially in prayer. Again it’s very easy, when we focus on our troubles and our worries, to question whether God is present and whether he’s trying to help us. But if you think about it, that attitude really displays a lack of humility, that somehow we might know better than God where we’re at or what we need. Instead, the humble person recognizes that God as our Father can never help but will the very best for us, and so even if we might not understand his purposes in a particular trial we are enduring, humility allows us to believe that he is present to us and aiding us in our difficulty. In many ways, humility is the beginning of a mature faith, because without it, we are too proud to approach God honestly.

Friends, just as we all have to learn certain skills as we move from childhood to adulthood, so too must we learn certain virtues if we are to advance in our relationship with God. Perhaps the most important of these is humility – but humility properly understood, seeking to see ourselves as God sees us. If you’re struggling with humility, look to Jesus – God become man, born in poverty and obscurity, who went to his own death to redeem us. You won’t find a better model of humility than Christ. And if we seek to make his humility our own, if we lower ourselves that we might better serve God and others, then it is Christ himself will call us to the higher place, to give us a seat of honor at his heavenly banquet.