Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's Hard to Be Humble (Luke 18:10-14) - Part One

Here is the first half of the sermon that I preached at St. Joseph's last Sunday, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
‘Cause I get better looking each day!
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man!
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doing the best that I can!
(Mac Davis, "Hard to Be Humble, 1980)

This is the chorus from one of the most popular country songs of 1980. And although it was certainly written tongue-in-cheek, it nevertheless expresses the attitude that many people have today. In today’s world, narcissism is at an all-time-high. In our culture, and in many other cultures around the world, humility is not seen as a virtue, but as a weakness. We are told that we have to stick up for ourselves. We have to look out for #1. We have the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and in whatever way we want. Each of us is the most important person in the universe. And most of us are really not all that bad; in fact, we’re pretty darn good people—it is other people that are the problem!

This kind of thinking is typified by the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading. St. Luke tells us that the Pharisee stood (not doubt in a place where others could see him and say, “Oh, what a good and pious man he is! Just look at him praying!”) and prayed “with himself”—in other words, he wasn’t really even speaking to God at all! His prayer is more of a pep-talk for himself. And when he does address God, he isn’t really even praying at all! Instead, he is giving God a lesson on just how great he is. He says “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast three times a week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” It’s not hard to imagine this Pharisee, if we could transport him to the present, singing “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way” and meaning it.

But let us not be too quick to point our fingers at the Pharisee and say, “Oh, I’m not like that Pharisee; I’m much more humble than THAT!” For if we do, then we have fallen right into the same trap of pride into which the Pharisee himself fell. If we are totally honest, we must admit that we do fall into this trap…and far too often. We exalt ourselves, telling ourselves, God, and others, that we are better than most other people. But what we need instead is humility. We need the humility of the publican, who “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”

This morning I’m going to discuss the importance of humility and how we can achieve it.

The Importance of Humility

Humility is of utmost importance to the Christian life. This is true first of all because humility is how God operates. Jesus himself set the example for us, as we see in St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: “[Jesus], being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men, and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death on the cross” (2:6-8). By coming to earth, living as a servant, and even allowing mere men to put him to death, Jesus showed extreme humility. He set an example that he wants us to follow.

Humility is important for another reason: it is necessary for salvation. For as St. Peter writes in his first Epistle: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (5:5). And without grace, we know that no one can be saved. You might say, “But doesn’t salvation come through faith?” It certainly does, but who can have faith without humility? And of course, faith is not just intellectual assent. It includes walking with Jesus day by day. And without humility, no one can resist the snares of the enemy. Listen to this saying of St. Anthony the Great: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’” Notice that only the publican went away justified.

St. Theodora of Egypt also speaks of the great importance of humility: “There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them. ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep?’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’”

Next time, we'll look the second half of the homily which deals with how to develop humility.


elizabeth said...

Father Bless!

I look forward to the second part of this. Thank you Fr. James.

Molly Sabourin said...

I also want to thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Publican and the Pharisee. There is so much to meditate on in that parable.