In today’s Gospel, we read about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Humility is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.” I think this gets it right for the most part. We must certainly guard against having a high opinion of ourselves and our importance relative to others. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable made many false assumptions about his spiritual state (being justified before God). He pretends to sit in the position of God in judging himself not like the rest of humanity. What a statement! Yet, I have caught myself on occasion, perhaps more than I would like to admit out loud, looking down on another person, feeling bad that they just do not ‘get it’ or being glad I am not like them due to some perceived personality flaw in them. I conveniently ignore my many faults and idiosyncrasies. How good we can become at finding the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. Jesus’ teaching here provides another safeguard against habits that lead us away from God and away from the love of our fellow man.
When we think too highly of ourselves, we can become enslaved to self-delusion. And likewise, the same thing can happen when we think too little of ourselves. There is a happy virtue in the mean between these extremes. I think this is what it means to be humble. It means to have the disposition of rightly calibrating ourselves to God. We are indeed highly valued by Him, created in His own image, and redeemed by the blood of His only begotten Son. But we are also creatures. We live alongside other creatures who are also created by God for a purpose. I suspect one root of religious pride is placing finitude upon God. If God loves me so much, there must be less to go around for others. And since God chooses to love me and show me things about Himself, I must be more special than other people. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is infinite and God is love. God is, therefore, infinite love and there is no way to exhaust it or get to the end of it. God can love all His creation without there being any competition for divine love. There is no limit to God’s action or His attention. Pride threatens when we think that because God is working in your life in a profound way He is not at work in the lives of others in an equally profound, but perhaps undetectable (to us) manner.
Returning to the question of humility, I think we find in it a willingness to let God shape our thoughts and minds, patterned after the Lord Jesus. It means doing the things Jesus said to do as part and parcel of being a disciple. It means not planting our flag and thinking we have everything figured out. It is resting in the confidence that God does have things figured out. We are fellow sojourners with many other people who are struggling with something in one way, shape, or form. When we think our momentary respites from trouble are strictly our own doing and the troubles of others are all their own fault, we take up the position of the Pharisee. We then justify ourselves by our deeds, and not by the grace of God. May the Lord help us instead follow the penitential attitude of the tax collector in the parable, who goes home justified for understanding and seeking after the Lord and not himself.