Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time(C)
August 29, 2010

Reasons, there are, abounding to aim for greatness, popularity, and power. With so much competition in our postmodern culture that values self-fulfillment and self-realization to the hilt; with so much pressure on us to deliver, perform, and conform to the so-called “norms” of a society that ever hankers for the elusive more and more, who would want to be at the bottom of the heap? Who would want to be left behind by the bandwagon of success and achievement?

By comparison, the liturgy today simply sounds so counter-intuitive, so counter-cultural! Whilst the whole world speaks of getting up higher in the rung of worldly importance, and exhorts all and sundry to pull their own strings, and to claim their rightful place under the sun, today’s readings almost sound like a douse of cold water to our raging enthusiasm to excel and be known to many for all we are worth (or at least imagine ourselves to be).

Or are they?

The first reading from Sirach opens, not with a shove towards worldly excellence, but a gentle nudge towards spiritual heights: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” Jesus, in the Gospel, affirms the exhortation of Sirach, with a very practical rule for party rats: “do not recline at table in the place of honor.” Consciously working and striving to aggrandize oneself and purposely elevating oneself to a level higher than that of others simply does not belong to Jesus’ new set of “table etiquette” in the Kingdom he has come to establish. The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives the context and motivation for such a selfless and lowly stance. Simply put, this world as we know it, is not going to last forever. Sooner than we imagine, the “heavenly Jerusalem” will one day bring to naught all our earthly strivings and all our vainglorious longings for honor, power, and glory.

A sobering thought and a solid reality check all this is!

Today, we are told not simply to be humble. We are also told that there are reasons, too, why we ought to be humble. Let’s get them straight from the horse’s mouth. Sirach tells us that with humility, we “will be loved more than a giver of gifts” and we “will find favor with God.” The letter-writer to the Hebrews reminds us of the ultimate reason to imitate God in his humility … we “approach Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven …” Jesus, for his part, tells us: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Yes, reasons abound for us to work for greatness and supremacy in every imaginable facet of human life. But more compelling reasons abound that show that the virtue of humility is worth striving after and working for … at least the right humility that the Scriptures speak of, not the self-deprecating type that has received such a bad rap for centuries – the maudlin, self-destructive “humility” that serves one in good stead only during pious retreats, only when there is no more choice left, a humility that enslaves, a humility “for effect,” a humility that really quietly seethes and screams in silent, muffled, and ill-concealed anger.

Yes … the humility that is the subject of today’s good news has nothing of the negative in it. Humility that Sirach speaks about does not smack of weakness and helplessness. The humility presented by Scriptures is redolent of the positive, the powerful, and the freely chosen. Scriptural humility starts with Truth, most especially the truth about God vis-à-vis human beings. And this truth has to do with His choice, His love, and His predilection for us His creatures. God is Love! Bernard Haring writes that these words imply in a challenging way the concomitant truth that God is humility. For “God is the love that bends down to us so that He can lift us up.”

Indeed, humility is truth, as we have often been told. Humility starts in truth which reminds us that we are only humus (soil), but loved immensely by the world’s most tremendous lover. This truth leads us to proclaim with gratitude: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.” (Responsorial Psalm)

This virtue that has received a bad press over the past many decades needs a little more looking into. It needs a repackaging of sorts, for instead of being all about negatives, it really has to do with a whole lot of positives. In this age and time of “positive psychology,” in a culture awash with ideas of self-fulfillment and self-realization, and in a world replete with examples of self-propelled success and self-made riches, it is all too easy to fall victim to the extremes, either of pride (thinking of oneself as greater than one really is), or self-pity (thinking of oneself as worse than he/she really is). In between the two extremes lies healthy self-esteem, the basic psychological building block of the virtue of humility.

I have it on the authority of moralist James Keenan that, whilst self-esteem is not a virtue, it makes the virtue of humility possible. Again, here we are back to the discourse of the grace-nature interplay. Grace builds on nature. And nature, that is, the human personality ought first to be perfected by, among others, a healthy self-esteem. Keenan goes further, in fact, as to suggest self-esteem to be among the so-called “cardinal virtues” (along with justice, prudence, fidelity, and self-esteem).

As a pastoral counselor and a priest-educator over the past twenty-eight years, I find common-ground with what Keenan suggests. More than this, I find the Biblical data on humility more than enough material to prop up such a positive approach to humility cum self-esteem.

Today’s readings are a case in point. They all speak of humility, not only as a positive virtue, but as a virtue that smacks of personal power. The virtue of humility, instead of being a virtue of the weak, really appears to be a virtue of those who are ready and willing to take the Kingdom of God by storm, on purpose, based on a freely made decision to focus less on what earthly and temporal kingdoms have to offer, but more on the “blazing fire” and the “trumpet blast” associated with the “resurrection of the righteous.”

Humble people are never humiliated. They can only be humbled even more, for in the strength and power of their well-placed self-esteem, they become the “meek” who have learned to “take [Jesus’] yoke upon [them] and learned from [him], meek and humble of heart.”

Blessed are the humble and the meek … for they shall inherit the earth. Like Jesus, humbled for a reason, they shall be exalted by no less than the God who is Love, the God who is humility, the Mighty, Strong, Immortal One !(Ho Theos, Ho Ischyros, Ho Athanatos).