“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12) 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 difficult is that it runs counter to our instinct to survive, which is part of our human nature and natural law, and 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, particularly in the area of desiring recognition. We need God’s grace to help us make decisions to be humble, rejecting all efforts on our part to seek attention. God is completely aware of the good we do, which is all the recognition we need. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.”
Actions that help nurture God’s grace include daily prayer, the reading of scripture and regular participation in the sacraments.
How do you make the choice to be humble?