Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: What is True Humility?

by Father Richard G. Cipolla
Parish of St. Mary
Norwalk, Connecticut

From the Gospel:  “For he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Is it not a non sequitur? The first part of the gospel is about Jesus’ eating with the Pharisees, the pious Jews who knew the Law.  Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees react:  is it lawful to heal a man on the Sabbath, since one cannot work on the Sabbath? So Jesus heals the man.  And then he tells a parable about humility.  Is this a nonsequitur?  The first part of the gospel is about the relationship between the Law and the demands of love.  The healing of the paralytic is an act of love on Jesus’ part.  We remember how the Pharisees asked Jesus which is the greatest commandment. And Jesus’ answer is swift:  You shall love the Lord your God with all you mind, heart, body and your neighbor as yourself. Then there comes the parable about humility in the form of the man invited to dinner.  You say:  this is Jesus’ commentary on what he saw at the Pharisees dinner, elbowing themselves to get the best seat.  Perhaps.  But I suggest that our Lord told this parable about humility for a deeper reason.

Another Latin term like virtus. This time it is humilitas.  The root of this word is the Latin word for ground, earth, humus.  This is humus with one m, no chick peas involved here. No.  Humilitas is the quality of living close to the ground. Now there are those who fake humility, those who pretend that the live close to the ground and have no aspirations to rise higher, no aspirations to get the best seats at the banquet. Literature is full of these phony people, from Dickens’ Uriah Heep to Moliere’s Tartuffe.  Frauds, But Jesus says:  blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, one of Newman’s favorite saying of our Lord.  The man who is truly humble knows himself so deeply that he assumes naturally that he has no business sitting at the head of the table anywhere and anytime.  And this has nothing to do with accepting the natural pecking order of things.  The man who is humble genuinely rejoices that someone else is chosen to sit in the place of honor, that others are held in great esteem, that others have worldly success, makes him happy. The humble man is a happy man. 

How impossible this is for contemporary man who strives for self-esteem, for self-worth.  These are men who are always calculating and planning, those who are content to occupy a lower place at the table for the time being, but who know that they deserve to sit next to the host and if they play their cards right, eventually that is where they will end up.  How impossible this is for the religious person who puts on a show of humility and under this cloak there lies a person who wants to be known as holy but whose heart is filled with spiritual pride. 

What does the truly humble man know that is not apparent to us?  This is what he knows:  that there is a direct link between humility and love.  Blessed are the humble for they shall inherit the earth.  That link between humility and love is found ultimately in God himself.  The very act of creation is an act of profound  humility on the part of God: He who is all powerful, all knowing, he who is in need of nothing or no one, this God creates what is not himself with no need to do so, and this because of love, and he creates man in his own image, the God who creates a creature in time and space, finite, oh, so finite, in his own image, not needing to, a profound act of humility, creating man from the dust of the earth and declaring that man is his image.  And what is the driving force for this infinite act of humility.  It is love. 

You see:  that is what the Pharisees had forgotten, or perhaps they never knew it.  Jesus was present at the meal in their house not because he had anything to gain by it, not because to associate with such pious men would enhance his status in the eyes of pious Jews of his time.  No.  Jesus is the man who is the self-emptying of God.  This is the ultimate act of humility on the part of God, to empty himself of his Godhead, to become finite flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This act of humility is infinite, something that we cannot even comprehend. It has nothing to do with where one sits at a formal dinner party. It has nothing to do with social status or with any status at all.  It is the ultimate act of self-emptying, of deciding to live close to the dust of the earth.  And the motive for this act of profound humility is love. 

And there is the source of the vital link between humility and love.  The source is God himself.  It is not philosophy nor moral teaching.  Blessed are the humble, without the humility of God in creating man and then redeeming him by becoming man so that he could die for our sins, there is no love in the deepest sense.  The truly humble man is the one who forgets himself to the extent that he is totally free to love others.  This self-forgetting is the root of humility and without this self-forgetting the act of love, the decision to love, is impossible. 

Let me give you one practical example.  The father or mother who admit their mistakes, who never play the omnipotent or omniscient role with their children, and all the while taking seriously their God given role as parents with the authority that demands:  these parents teach their children the relationship between humility and love in a real and profound way, and the children love them ever more deeply, because they see in their parents what it means to love selflessly and without the corruption of confusing power with authority.  Another example with respect to the Church:  the priest who does not take seriously the various titles bestowed on him, including Father, the priest who has no interest in the trappings of clericalism, the priest who identifies ultimately and really with the self-emptying out of his God every time he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest who does not confuse power and authority, the latter which comes only from self-knowledge that manifests itself in sacrificial love for his flock:  this is the priest who teaches his flock what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

The question for each of us here today is the same:  will I keep living my life trying to get to the top,  assuming that I am worthy of or I deserve to be a success in this world as the world understands success, or will I use the grace that God so generously gives me in the Sacraments to forget myself and live close to the ground so that I and love others generously and really:  and therefore be surprised and happy when I hear those words:  my friend, come up to a higher place.