Humility, False Humility and the Way of God

October 27, 2019

In the Gospel we hear the great comparison. We have the holier than thou Pharisees, and the sinful tax collector.  Jesus sets us up to see that there is a great divide in how society looks at them and how we enter the story.  Even their posture is different.  As we picture these two, Jesus fills us in and leads us to the discovery that all is not what it seems. Jesus does this quite often. He invites us to find His way, a way that goes beyond the externals to see as God sees; He invites us to see something deeper.  The word humility comes from a Latin root, “humus” meaning earth and ground.   The word humanity also contains this same root and connects with the Book of Genesis where out of the ground God formed man and woman in His image.   So humility is postured by the tax collector, not only by the way in which he keeps his distance, but also by the way he looks down and does not raise his eyes to heaven.  From this same Latin root comes the word humiliate.  This is the dangerous word that some use when they deceive themselves with false humility.  The Pharisee is using false humility to put down the tax collector.  He is comparing himself to the other stating he is far greater because of his actions.

God is constantly at work within us.  In this Gospel it is not God making the comparison, it is the Pharisee.  This is a very important distinction.  Jesus is showing His listeners how the Pharisee is comparing himself to the other.  That is not what God does.  God does not enter into our great comparisons.  When we make a comparison, so often there is a winner and a loser.  When we speak words of physical attributes like this one is skinnier or more athletic than another, we are creating a hierarchy of what is more pleasing to us.  This by nature creates a choice.  One is a winner and a loser.  We do make comparisons academically, such as this one is more intelligent, ranked higher in their class, most brilliant, and these do the same thing to the average student using all the gifts and talents they have.  When we make these kind of comparisons, we are not looking in the right place.  Humility does not come from a comparison.  God does not compare us to others.  Too often our young people make radical decisions based on comparisons.  It begins with the clothes they wear, the positions they play, or the teams and clubs to which they belong.  The pressure and tension comes from comparisons.  From the moment they are awake, comparisons happen continuously and are intensified by social media.

Later in life, when maturity and wisdom enters, we sometimes hear others say, “I don’t care what they think” or “It doesn’t really matter.”  How do we get to this point?  We get there when we realize the comparison game doesn’t matter and gets us nowhere.  If I used the comparison game, I could spend all day wondering why I want this or that, from being a bishop to being a bestselling author.  These fights are internal.  When we are hurt, sometimes we want to hurt others back.  We compare. We usually make ourselves the winner of the comparison.  Or we make ourselves the loser just to add to anxiety or depression.  None of these experiences of comparison are from God.  One day when I had to have my parents sign a test on which I received a low score, I can remember telling them that I had earned one of the better test scores and the others did a lot worse than I had.  I lifted myself up out of guilt and put others down.  It made me feel better.  I don’t know if they ever believed me, but they signed the test and that was humbling enough.

We are at our best when we are humble. Being humble begins with the self-awareness that each of us is a sinner, each of us is broken and each of us needs God.  When we are humble, we know the source of forgiveness, the source of mercy and the source of unconditional love.  The Good News of Jesus reminds us that God is not about comparisons.  He is about pure and unconditional love.

May God help us to find the way to embrace His love and love others as we have been loved.

Reverend  John J. Ouper