Category Archives: Humility

Humility Trumps Good Works

Did Jesus have a heart for tax collectors?

You might think so.  He called Levi (Matthew) from his tax collector’s booth to be one of his disciples.  Later he had dinner with a number of Matthew’s tax collector friends to the consternation of the Jewish religious leaders.  As he was entering Jericho, he saw Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector for the area, and invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day, which led to Zacchaeus finding salvation and giving half his wealth to the poor.

The Jews despised tax collectors for they were considered traitors, serving as agents for the Romans in collecting their taxes.  Jesus used this antipathy by the Jews to drive home a point in a parable with message that humility was more important than sacrifice.

It’s a great parable – about prayer, self-righteousness, humility, and justification.  Two men go up to the temple to pray: a Pharisee and a tax collector.  The Pharisee talks about himself, thanking God that he is not like other sinful men and the tax collector.  The tax collector simply bows his head, beats his breast and says, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” 

Jesus said that in contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector went home justified before God.  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

This parable challenges we Christians who attend church every Sunday, generally follow the rules, don’t regularly commit significant sins and lead a fairly decent life.  Like the Pharisee, it is so easy to let our pride sneak in and become self-righteous, justifying ourselves by comparing our actions to the apparent sinful ways of others.  

I say to myself that I don’t steal from others nor do them physical harm.  I don’t commit sexual sins. But yet, right below the surface is my tendency to be critical and judgmental of others, get angry over some personal slight, and seek recognition for my self-perceived accomplishments.

Jesus asks us, “Where is your heart?” When we lose sight of our dependence on God and grow proud of our accomplishments, we become like the Pharisee.  We stumble in our journey toward God and open ourselves to the very conduct we proudly claim we are avoiding. 

Even St. Paul had to acknowledge the sinful nature that hovers right outside our daily lives when he said, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:19)

Only by acknowledging our tendency toward our sinful nature, are we able to maintain a humility that recognizes our dependency on staying close to God and receiving his grace.

Humility is a Choice

How do we become humble?

Both Matthew and Luke report Jesus making the statement, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12; Luke 14:11)  Jesus seems to imply that being humble or exalting oneself is an act of our will.  It is a choice we make.  Personal experience and history show that we are not naturally humble.

Jesus illustrates his statement with a parable about a guest invited to a wedding feast who picked a place of honor only to be told by the host to move to a lower place so another guest more distinguished than he may take his place.

One of the reasons being humble is a choice is that the instinct to survive which is part of our human nature and natural law inclines us to put self first.  Original sin involving pride and disobedience also predisposes us to put self first.  To overcome our nature and instead be humble, therefore, requires a choice.  To serve rather than be served necessitates a decision on our part.

Jesus praises such a decision both in the passage above and in the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:3)  Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” (Mt. 11:29)  Peter, James and Paul all encourage us to be humble in their letters.

In David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, he tells the following story.  At a special reception Truman held for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Peace Conference near the end of World War II, Sergeant Eugene List, an American concert pianist, played a Chopin waltz.  List asked if someone in the audience would be good enough to turn the pages.  Truman jumped to his feet, waived off another volunteer and did the job himself.   In a letter to his wife, List later wrote, “Imagine having the President of the United States turn the pages for you!  But that’s the kind of man the President is.”   

Personally, I have to work hard to maintain a humble spirit in all my interactions with others.  Too often, my pride overtakes my intentions.  We need God’s grace to help us make decisions to be humble.  Actions that help nurture God’s grace include daily prayer, the reading of scripture and regular participation in the sacraments.

“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)