Tuesday, October 31, 2017

PENTECOST XXII 2017 (Proper 26)

In the Gospel passage for this week Jesus contrasts those who use religion as a means for self-promotion and aggrandizement, 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 think that self-abasement is unhealthy. In the consumerist world of today, however, this belief in self-esteem slides into the assertion of a right to live life just as I choose, thus giving pride of place to the satisfaction of personal desire and the pursuit of goals that I have chosen. This right to individuality is widely held to be the ideal that self respecting people ought to strive for. With such an ideal in view, humility comes to be rejected, discarded as an outmoded taste for self-denigration. Conversely, praising humility is condemned as a covert way of undermining the rights of the poor, the abused or the oppressed.

There are indeed dangers here. Telling others to be humble can be a form of domination, one in which humility is conveniently compounded with humiliation. 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.

Mountain of the Holy Cross -- Thomas Hill
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 – paying lip service to humility, but really harboring a desire to be exalted? It is essential to remember that central to the Gospel message is the exaltation of Jesus -- on a Cross. True humility seeks 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, and the 'heights' to which it is most worth aspiring.

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