Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Pharisees - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)
In the Gospel passage for this week Jesus contrasts those who use religion as a means for self-promotion and aggrandisement, with those who find in it a cause for deep humility. Humility of this kind may be said to be the most distinctive of Christian virtues. Love, compassion, hospitality, and a sense of justice, are all virtues in other creeds, both religious and non-religious. But humility stands out as something on which Christians place particular value, an emphasis that served to set their faith far apart from the Roman world in which it first emerged.

It has never been an easy virtue to accept, and may indeed be even harder now than it was then. A sense of self-worth is crucial to psychological well being, and so we rightly lend importance to self-esteem. In the consumerist world of today, however, this sense easily slides into an assertion of individual rights, desire satisfaction and personal accomplishment. Indeed, these are so often taken to be the marks of what self respecting people should strive for, that humility comes to be despised as a kind of self-abasement. Conversely, praising humility is dismissed as a  covert way of undermining the rights of the poor, the abused or the oppressed.

Micah -- James Tissot
There are indeed dangers here. Telling others to be humble is a familiar form of domination. Still, Jesus could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of humility against the Pharisees’ great failing -- spiritual pride. Their confidence in their own righteousness was so secure, they assumed they could pursue their own interests with impunity. It is precisely the same fault that Micah eloquently condemns in the accompanying Old Testament lesson.

There is, nonetheless, an element of paradox in what Jesus says – ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’. Does this not imply a kind of ‘mock’ humility – appearing humble, but really harboring a desire to be exalted? Here it is essential to remember that it was on a Cross that Jesus himself was ‘exalted’. The exaltation that true humility seeks is for spiritual heights, not social or material status -- even in the next life. The prayer of the Psalmist expresses it perfectly – “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”. The humility that should result from such a prayer is not a sign of timidity. Rather, it will reflect deep confidence born of honesty about who we are and who God is.

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