Humility is the pathway to God

by May Tam
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

I believe many of us cannot but marvel at Jesus' mastery in story-telling. Today's Gospel reading is one of the memorable parables that Jesus used as a means of bringing out His message.

The characters in the parable that Jesus employed are an oppugnant pair in Jesus' time – a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee, who not only strictly observes the Law, but even goes far beyond it, is both self-righteous and righteous in the eyes of many Jews. On the other hand, the tax collector, due to the nature of his job, is publicly regarded as sinner and often being despised. While the Pharisees' words are probably true, they are no prayer but braggadocio! And while the tax collector may truly be a sinner, he acknowledges his sins and feels sorry for them. So while the Pharisee feels that God needs him, the tax collector feels he needs God; his need for God's mercy.

The story ends with a famous saying which can be found in four different contexts in both Matthew's and Luke's Gospels (rf Mt 18:4, 23:12; Lk 14:11, 18:14) – “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). The collection of similar sayings throughout the Synoptic Gospels teach that humility is the pathway to God and a prerequisite to be Jesus' disciple. They depict a complete reversal of situations – the first become last (rf Mt 20:16, Lk 14:7-11); the greatest, the least (rf Lk 9:48, Mk 9:33-37, Lk 22:24-30, Mt 20:20-28); the leader, the servant (rf Mk 10:41-45, Lk 22:24-27 Mt 23:8-11). In Luke's Gospel, the first glimpse of such reversal of situation is in Mary's Magnificat. It is the lowly handmaid who would receive praise throughout all generations; it is the poor and humble whom God would lift up and it is the hungry that God would fill them with good things (rf Lk 1:46-55).

The Hebrew word anaw means humble, lowly or meek. It is a favorite word found in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. A person of such disposition is described as one who is dear to God. He will hear his/her prayers and will uplift, defend and save such a one. In the New Testament, it is from the lips of Jesus that affirms such favor of God. This is the attitude that the tax collector displayed, a proper manner before God and therefore “he went back to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee]” (Lk 18:14).

Inasmuch as humility wins favor from God, it also enhances one's life and relationship with others. In social encounters, a humble person is more approachable and welcoming than the one who is arrogant and aloof. In potential conflicts, a humble person is more likely to avoid unnecessary hostility and confrontation. In personal hurts, a humble person will not retaliate but entrust himself/herself to God who “judges justly” (1 Pt 2:23) and in facing challenges and hardships, a humble person who acknowledges self inadequacy, will not be discouraged but depend on God for strength and guidance.

Humility is not weakness rather, as St Augustine says, it is “the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance” – as is reflected in the Pharisee today.