What does it mean to be humble? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Luke 18:9-14a, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In our Gospel today, a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to worship God. What do we need so that we can worship?

It is the hollow in a cylindrical piece of wood that makes it a flute and enables it to produce music. In a similar way, we must also be hollowed out, emptied of our false pride and arrogant pretenses, to be able to sing praises to God. We cannot worship the Lord if we are too full of ourselves. We cannot glorify God if we are not humble. And what does it mean to be humble? The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in our Gospel today provides us with important clues.

The Pharisee proclaims to God, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income” (Luke 18:12). Hearing this may make us say, “Ang yabang naman!” But it is not in the Pharisee’s enumeration of his good deeds that he errs. In fact, real humility asks us not to hide what we have done under a bushel. Our good deeds must be brought out into the light. Humility is, first and foremost, honesty. Where the Pharisee erred is in thinking and acting like his good deeds were his achievements alone. He should have continued his proclamation, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income – and thanks be to God because he has given me the grace to do these things.”

St Thomas Aquinas taught that the word humility comes from the Latin humus, which refers to earth, or to soil, or to the ground. Let me push his etymology further: The root of humility originates from a word meaning ground; humility means knowing where you are grounded. Humility means acknowledging the ground and source of all our talents, of all our works, of our very being. Humility is proudly admitting, “Without God, I would be nothing.”

The tax collector approaches God and humbly prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He could have said, “I have sinned, but if you forgive me, I will fast twice a week, pay tithes on my income, give to the poor, and be a more loving person.” Perhaps he was thinking of doing these things as a sign of his repentance. But in my imagination, the tax collector only says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” because he knows that if he should be able to do any of these good things, it would only be because of God’s mercy. Without God’s mercy, where would he be?

What else does humility mean?

Some weeks ago, a number of young Jesuits in my community were ordained as deacons. Sharing about what part of the ordination touched them most, one said, “When we were lying prostrate on the ground, begging God, ‘Lord, have mercy!’” He told us about what his grandmother made him promise – that lying prostrate on the ground would not just be something he did for a few minutes on ordination day but would be the attitude he would keep all throughout his ministry. “To lie on the ground is not just to lower yourself,” his lola taught him. “You lie on the ground to hear the footfalls of those you serve and to make sure your heart beats in time with their steps.”

Again, as St. Thomas taught, humility comes from the Latin humus, which refers to earth, or to soil, or to the ground. For a second time, let me push his etymology even further: Humus, the soil, is made up of the bodies of living things that have gone before. Humility is knowing we are connected with others, that we share the same ground. We are sinners no different from others; we depend on God’s mercy like everyone else. Compare this confession to the Pharisee’s boast (which is also the only time when he thanks God): “I am not like the rest of humanity –greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Translation: “I am better than others; no one can measure up to me.”

Our model of humility is Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself…” (Philippians 2:6-8). But Jesus did not lower himself just to debase himself. He emptied himself, hollowed himself out, so that though sinless, he might stand with us sinners. A conceited person tiptoes so that he or she can project himself or herself as head and shoulders above others. A humble person’s joy is in walking shoulder to shoulder with others.

I have to confess that though I see the value of being humble, humility is a virtue that does not come easy for me. I have come to know that this is because I always want to stand out and be recognized for what I have done. I want my posts “liked” or “shared.” I want my 140-character musings “retweeted.” And when they are not, I put on a façade of humility to fish for compliments. As I write this, I have to admit that I do not know how to end it or come to a neat conclusion – proof again of my difficulty with humility. But as I read and re-read this last paragraph, one thing that strikes me is the number of times I have used “I”: a total of eleven times in the last six sentences (excluding this one). Maybe this is why I am again having trouble with humility. The “I” must be hollowed out; the self must be emptied.

When I find myself focusing too much on the “I,” I must recognize that God is the source of everything good in this “I.” When I find myself getting wrapped up in the good this “I” has done, I must make an effort to recognize the good others have done also. Rick Warren is right – humility isn’t thinking less of myself; it is thinking of myself less.

So enough about me. What about you? What do you think humility means? What do you do to be more humble?

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