14th of the Year, 9 Jul 23
What does IMHO stand for on a text message? “In my humble opinion,” and the irony of course if you use such a phrase is that invariably you’re at least a bit tongue in cheek. “In my humble opinion” so often really means “I’ve never had a humble opinion in my life but you’re probably not going to take the advice I give you and that’s your problem not mine.” The concept of humility has a significant history in that, did you know, it was really just an alien concept to the Greek and Roman cultures so dominant at the time of our Lord’s Incarnation, His Birth, Passion, Death and Resurrection. Humility was not something to be praised; it was seen as weakness. After all, if you are humble you could clearly be taken advantage of and taken for a ride, be walked all over, and no one would notice or mind. Humble meant weak, pathetic, to be despised.
That background is important for us to fully appreciate our Lord’s words we’ve just in the Gospel: “I am gentle and humble in heart.” What?! And this comes just after Our Lord has been sending the disciples out, as we heard last Sunday and two weeks before that, in passages from St Matthew’s great missionary chapter, chapter 10. And Jesus has just been saying earlier in chapter 11 how He is greater than St John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrated two weeks ago. He has condemned local cities Chorazin, Tyre and Sidon and Capernaum and now … now He’s saying He’s humble. What a let down it could have sounded. Who wants to follow someone humble? And I think while we live in an increasingly secular age we see humility going out of fashion again. Would we want a politician or a leader or a celebrity to say they’re humble? Would we believe them if they did say it?
What is humility? It’s an antidote to pride and it is about getting our relationship with God right. Our Lord Himself says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” (St Matthew 23:12) and no less an exhortation comes from St Peter, that “under the mighty hand of God, He may exalt you in due time,” (I Peter 5:6). Theologians, such as St Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper, link it to the theological virtue of temperance. This is interesting because temperance is to do with our use of the things of this world and this includes those spiritual things, which St Paul urged us to yearn for in our second reading. Temperance compels us to use these things moderately. In our often unforgiving society things are so often seen as good or bad; in contrast, our belief as Christians means we see things as good with the possibility of being misused or not being used in moderation. This recognition that the world is good and that we should use the things of this world for the good for which they were intended is part of this virtue of temperance.
With the privilege we have of being stewards of the world, we must not equate ourselves with God and this is the link between humility and temperance. For when we see the lives of others as something we can exploit we have thought too highly of ourselves; when we have thought people less important than us because they’re serving us in a cafe we have thought too highly of ourselves; when we have decided to end a life which otherwise would have flourished we have thought too highly of ourselves; when we have believed we don’t need to abide by the Church’s teachings, or that we can live without the grace we receive from the Mass we have thought too highly of ourselves. When we think our plans and expectations are essential whereas God’s expectations are optional or only when it is convenient, we have thought too highly of ourselves. When do we fail to be humble?
Humility does not mean however we are to be devoid of ambition. It is absolutely a natural part of us being made in the image of God, greater than whom cannot be imagined, that we strive after the higher gifts. We are programmed to yearn for Him, the source of all goodness, the most excellent God, worthy of all praise. And this yearning is compounded because we know at heart that we’re separated from God by our sin. We long to be back in fellowship with Him and so it is a natural part of being human that we yearn for something more than our current experience. St Paul teaches the Christians in Corinth about love in that beautiful thirteenth chapter of his first letter to them, introducing the subject by saying: “Strive for the great gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way,” (12:31). So, be ambitious but for the right things: not for others to think well of us but for God to think well of us, seeing within us a heart made pure by His grace.
St Thomas Aquinas gives further wisdom: “It is contrary to humility to aim at greater things through confiding in one’s own powers: but to aim at greater things through confidence in God’s help, is not contrary to humility; especially since the more one subjects oneself to God, the more is one exalted in God’s sight,” (Summa). So, in this striving for greatness we’re to do it in God’s strength which He gives to us in particular ways, like the Sacraments, the fellowship of His Church and a lively relationship with Jesus our Lord. Don’t strive for greatness trusting in your own strength. And alongside this we have to be aware that the more humble we are, the more exalted we will be. Humility yes but we also need to be high-minded. We’ve received this wonderful gift of knowing Jesus Christ, made members of His Body the Church, we’re stewards of the mysteries of God, we’re heralds of His Kingdom. We’re all of us called to greatness!
Having those responsibilities should rightly seem slightly daunting. This is heavy stuff. But God in His generosity always provides means for us to receive grace to be faithful. We might not access those channels but we must have absolute confidence that God who is always more generous than we can imagine is always willing to give sufficiently. We can be particular reticent to think of these responsibilities within the life of the Church because we can feel like we’ve already got enough on our plate: what with work where so-and-so is off sick or where there have been cutbacks; what with looking after the children or the grandchildren; what with needing to do this or do that, whatever it might be; there are those strains on our time, our energy and our patience. My friends, don’t let lives which we might label busy choke the seed God has planted in you. Remember the Parable of the Sower where this danger is identified (St Matthew 13:1-23). Remind those you support of this too, that neither should they let their cares choke the seed of God that has been planted in to their hearts.
In that wonderful Gospel we’ve just heard Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Should my yoke and learn from me.” We are to learn from Jesus how to do the things we are meant to do. We will learn first that there are sufferings we just have to get on and cope with, this we learn as we gaze on the Cross, as we walk the Stations of the Cross around the Church building. We are to learn too that people expect Jesus to do things and He is clear what is and is not His call. When He enters Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, folk think He has come to lead a revolt, but that’s not who He is. People want to resort to violence in the Garden of Gethsemane, but that’s not who Jesus is. People want to stone sinners, but that’s not who Jesus is. Where are we doing things which are in conflict to our calling to faith, hope and love? And finally Jesus does things and people are astounded that He does them, like forgiving sins and raising the dead. We too are called to do things which are truly amazing and which will astound others.
Brothers and sisters, let us remember that work, sharing in the creativity of God is part of who we are. Each day, whether we’re sick or running on all cylinders, whether we’re young or old, whether we’re employed or retired we have works of creation to make each day. God invites the first man to share in His creating work by naming the animals (Genesis 2:19) and humanity is to till the earth. This is a privilege for us, a glorious sharing in God’s activity and a sign of how blessed we are in the scheme of life. And yet, for various reasons, we’ve lost confidence in the beauty of so much of God’s creation and this includes the beauty of work. It’s sin that makes our activity strenuous uunrewardng or which keeps from our chores in the first place. The rest our Blessed Lord offers us is not sitting on a sun lounger with a gin and tonic for the rest of our life (though that’s nice too!) but a life where we do all He would have us to with a yoke around us but finding it easy and His burden light. We will find it easier to do this if we are humble before God’s wondrous purposes.