In today’s Gospel, Jesus first speaks about the theme of humility and pride. He then moves on to challenge us to have a virtue of generosity that is motivated purely by our love for God. I have enough time in this homily to reflect only on the first theme of humility and pride where Jesus proclaims that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled . . . but, those who humble himself will be exalted.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for their great desires to be honoured in public places. Their pride blinded them to the truth of who they truly were and who God is for them. In seeking after self-glory and glamour they have forgotten to praise, reverence and serve God.
The Webster’s dictionary defines “pride” as “inordinate self-esteem, an unreasonable conceit of superiority (as in talents, beauty, wealth, rank.)” It further explains that “pride is an unjustified self-esteem arising from a false, inflated, and pretentious sense of one’s worth culminating in arrogant conceit.” The Catholic Encyclopedia speaks of pride as “an exaggerated love and concern for self.”
There is a story of a young woman Jane who asked for an appointment with her Parish Priest to talk with him about a recurring and persistent sin that she was getting worried about. When she saw him, she said, "Father, I have become aware of a sin in my life which I cannot control. Every time I am at Mass I begin to look around at the other women, and I realize that I am the most beautiful women in the whole congregation. Somehow I cannot overcome the thought that none of the other women is a beautiful as me. So, what can I do about this sin?" The Parish Priest replied, "Jane, you have not sinned . . . you are just mistaken!”
We then have another story of Henry Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Henry was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, "What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?" The professor replied quietly, "I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion." Later a very close friend of the professor commented, “Henry, you are usually very unassuming and humble about your achievements. I was very surprised at the answer you gave to the lawyer.” Henry answered, "Well, what did you expect me to say? I was under oath!" (Adapted: Today in the Word, August 5, 1993.)
Pride is essentially a falsehood and a distortion of the truth because of our self-conceitedness and exaggerated self-love. On the other hand, the virtue of humility that Jesus proclaims is about the truth of oneself. In true humility, there is no need for pretence; what matters most is the truth of the “self” in the light of our presence to God. And if this is so, then the virtue of humility will help us accept the many gifts, talents and virtues that God has given us, and the grace to face and also accept our weaknesses, imperfections and sinfulness.
Winston Churchill was once asked, "Doesn't it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?" "It's quite flattering," replied Sir Winston. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big." (re: Norman McGowan, My Years With Winston Churchill, Souvenir Press, London.)
Andrew Murray, a South African writer-pastor once wrote, “Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is for me to have no trouble; never to be fretted or vexed or irritated or sore or disappointed. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord where I can go in and shut the door and kneel to my Father in secret and be at peace as in a deep sea of calmness when all around is trouble. It is the fruit of the Lord Jesus Christ's redemptive work on Calvary's cross” . . . in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The living of such great humility of calmness, peace and strength amidst the great challenges and threats in one’s life is found in the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary is the most perfect creature and model of humility because she was able to live her whole life perfectly as the handmaid of the God’s Will. Regardless of the tests, trials and threats in her life, Mary continued to praise, reverence and serve God’s Will faithfully.
It was John Riskin (a leading English Art critic) who said, "I believe the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power, or hesitation in speaking his opinion. But, really great men have a . . . . feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than what God made them to be."
Andrew Murray said, "The humble man feels no jealousy or envy. He can praise God when others are preferred and blessed before him. He can bear to hear others praised while he is forgotten because . . . he has received the Spirit of Jesus” . . . who is there to guide, enlighten and empower him to live the fullness of his life . . . in Christ-like ways. “Therefore, in putting on the Lord Jesus Christ he has put on the heart of compassion, kindness, meekness, long suffering, and humility."
Samuel Morse, the famous inventor of telegraph was once asked if he ever encountered situations where he didn't know what to do. Morse responded, "More than once, and whenever I could not see my way clearly, I knelt down and prayed to God for light and understanding."
While Morse received many honours from his invention of the telegraph, he however felt undeserving. He said, "I have made a valuable application of electricity not because I was superior to other men but solely because God, who meant it for mankind, must reveal it to someone and He was pleased to reveal it to me." Tim Hansel, Eating Problems for Breakfast, Word Publishing, 1988, pp. 33-34.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as I sum up and conclude, let us remind ourselves that if we are proud and exalt ourselves, then we are distorting the truth about ourselves; we are living a lie; we are living in a fantasy world that will lead to a lot of disappointments, divisiveness in relationships that will only offer us a life of emptiness and pain.
But, if we truly wish to live and develop the virtue of humility that Jesus proclaimed in today’s Gospel, then we are living the truth of ourselves where we will accept the abundant blessings that God has given us, but also face the truth of our imperfections, weaknesses and sinfulness in Christ-like ways. Such true humility will lead us to praise, reverence and serve God more fully and bring forth the peace, joys and fulfilment that God Wills that we receive and live at all times.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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