Proper 17C: True Humility
By: Jerrod McCormack
Humility: What does it mean to be a truly humble individual? This is a question that I suppose in some ways I have struggled with my whole life. For many years, I believed that it meant that I had to check every emotion before allowing it through the cracks in my well-honed and polite southern exterior, and every time the strongest of those emotions did make it through I felt guilty and carried shame because I wasn’t being understanding enough toward others. The ‘humility’ of much of my adult life wasn’t true humility at all. It was a masquerade of my own ego—not that I could have named it as such in the time. So what is true humility?
St. Augustine of Hippo says that, “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.” That still doesn’t solve the problem of defining humility. Most definitions of humility involve some use of the word humble in them which isn’t very helpful. Many others define humility as the opposite of pride. For me, my best definition of humility is having in myself a profound understanding of my own reliance and need for God’s love and mercy in my life. This humility arises from the conviction that I need God’s love and mercy as much as anyone else. Humility is also about understanding our place in the cosmos. I am only one person among the estimated 7.4 billion people living on this tiny globe hurling through space in this little corner of the Milky Way.
My sense of humility today is profoundly different than it was only a few years ago. I have embraced a new way of engaging with the world. It is easy when we do not encounter those who are significantly different than us to assume that everyone must necessarily think the way we do. I think it is a natural thing for us to project our own way of thinking onto all humanity. In a culture where people of different religious faiths, spiritual practices, ideologies, social groups, ethnic identities, and origins come to live side by side, we cannot have the privilege of projecting onto the world our own ways of thinking. In post-modern thought, we need to bring a certain amount of humility to our interactions with the world. Post-modernists talk about this in terms of epistemological humility.
This idea of epistemological humility is actually fairly simple though the name makes it sound really complex. It means that we have to be honest about what we can and cannot know for certain. It means at the core of who we are that we must accept our own human experience as limited to the culture, religious faith, family of origin, ethnic identity, and nationality in which we’ve lived our lives. It is ultimately about honesty and integrity both spiritually and intellectually. St. Paul speaks of this humility when he says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
When we understand that everything we know is but a fraction of the collected knowledge of humanity expressed in the faith of the Christian Tradition in our western culture, we can be more open to understanding the places from which others share their journeys in faith and doubt. It is this sense of our own place in the universe and in the world of God’s redeeming that allows us to approach others with understanding instead of judgement, with true humility instead of pride in assuming that we know what is right for them. Jesus tells us at the end of the first half of this reading that, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This isn’t about jockeying for a position at the table.
It is about the gospel that turns the world on its head. It’s about the young Israelite woman who at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel sings out, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:52-53) This call for the righting of all things has its roots in the hope for the messiah. Jesus connects this hope to the rewards of the resurrection. Reward will come on ‘the last day’ when God will give away seats at the banquet table to those who have humbled themselves first and then to those who have been proud and conceited. Notice that here in Luke’s gospel there’s no exclusion of the people who haven’t acted humbly. There is only a lesser place at the feast.
I can’t help but wonder what it means to have a lesser place at God’s banquet table. I imagine it to be quite contrary to the experience of being at the back of the line. Being at the back of the line brings with it a certain connotation that you will have to eat the crumbs and the leftovers after everyone has already had all the good stuff, but at the banquet in God’s kingdom there is no limit to the good stuff. The concept of limited resources doesn’t apply to the One who is boundless.
Jesus taps into the understanding of a radical hospitality when he says that when we invite guests to a feast we shouldn’t invite those folks who can repay us for our generosity, but instead we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. I can follow why Jesus would point us toward these marginalized groups. I have to wonder in what way it changes our perspective on the world when we hang out with the outcast, the friendless, and the downtrodden. Maybe it is here among the lowly that we embrace our own lowliness, explore our own disabilities, and find that deep sense of humility. I would say that when our lives intertwine with these marginalized groups we cannot be left the same.
One of the things I learned while I was in seminary was that the honor and shame culture of the ancient near east is a foreign idea to many western readers. It’s just something we don’t get because we aren’t embedded in a culture where honor is prized. I would argue quite the contrary. I am deeply a product of the southern culture in which I was raised. It is a culture with a hefty dose of honor and shame for all. In the small rural town in north Alabama where I grew up, honor was handed out primarily to those families that had been a part of the community for generations. Shame was heaped on the doorstep of anyone who dared to challenge the status quo and people who weren’t ‘like us.’ My experience of being an outsider in this culture has greatly shaped the way I have lived and the types of ministries in which I have invested my life. I worked or volunteered in churches, hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and long term care facilities. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the people whose lives I have been privileged to enter had as much effect on my life as I believe I have had on theirs.
 Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologicae, Question 161: Article 2.
Jerrod McCormack is a Chaplain Intern at Bethany Care Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also the Youth Minister at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He is convinced that the cross is the greatest expression of God’s love for all people and that God’s love calls us to a life of hospitality, acceptance, and gives peace. When in search of fun, he can be found with a camera in his hand on some random mountain pass in the Rockies. He is married to Ali McCormack, and they live in Calgary, Alberta.