September 1, 2013
There is an old story that goes like this: There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring so that the tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.” The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”
It’s a wonderful story about humility, about the recognition of the limits of our own talents, abilities and authority. It seems like many of our religious traditions hold the virtue of humility in highest esteem. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the virtue of humility is considered the most important of the seven capital virtues. Humility holds the most important place because it is the opposite of what Dante considers the worst of the seven deadly sins, the sin of pride. Dante defined pride as the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for neighbor.” For Dante, pride, indeed, goeth before the fall. Humility, on the other hand, is radical dependence on God, total trust in God and surrender to His will.
And yet, even though humility is highly esteemed in our religious traditions, it doesn’t seem to be one of our favorite virtues today. In fact, humility seems downright humiliating. Who wants to eat “humble pie,” after all? Don’t we think of pride as a virtue rather than humility?
Aren’t we all rather more interested in buying a book about the “Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People” than a book about the “Seven Secrets of Lowly, Humble People”?
Don’t we love to hold up those big foam fingers and signs proclaiming that our team is No. 1? I’ve never seen a foam finger or a sign proclaiming that our team displays the virtues of temperance, honesty and humility.
Isn’t “American Idol” about the thousands of people who desire fame, if only for 15 minutes? Can we even imagine a program about people who seek to cultivate the classical virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude? It would seem an absurdity to have a televised competition rewarding someone for displaying the greatest humility, but I suppose I wouldn’t put it past some television network to come up with a new reality program entitled “Dancing With the Hermits” or “Who Wants to Be a Franciscan?” or “The Last Monastic Standing” or some such nonsense.
Well, no, probably not.
To quote a pop song from a few years back, “We all want to be big stars.” And it’s not all about becoming rich and famous. Browse the self-help aisle at your local bookstore, and you will see books entitled “Awaken the Giant Within” by Anthony Robbins, “The Hero Within” by Carol Pearson, and “Achieve Anything in Just One Year” by Jason Harvey. For 20 or 30 bucks you can buy one of these books, and apparently be on the road to awakening either your inner giant or your inner hero and achieving anything. I wonder what Dante would think! More importantly, I wonder what Jesus would think.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, a story about pride and humility. Apparently, Jesus was invited to share the Sabbath meal at the house of a leading Pharisee, who would have been something of a big muckety-muck in religious circles.
It’s hard to understand why these upright religious folks keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties, because he always causes a ruckus. At a dinner party at another Pharisee’s house, a disheveled and disreputable woman crashes the party, throws herself at Jesus feet, and begins weeping. The host of the part gets very upset, but Jesus apparently thinks she has done a beautiful thing.
So, in today’s story, when we hear Jesus was invited into the home of a Pharisee for a meal, you know there is going to be trouble. Jesus arrives, maybe he makes a little small talk, and then he watches how the guests jockey with each other for the places of honor. You know that delicate dance where you try to get the good seats next to the really important people.
So Jesus watches this for a while, and then he launches into a story, which basically skewers the pretensions of all the guests. He says, “When you get invited to a banquet, don’t seat yourself in a place of honor, because someone more important than you may come along, and then you will be asked to give up your seat, and you will be disgraced in front of the whole party. Rather, take the lowest seat, so that when your host sees you sitting in the cheap seats, he will say, ‘Friend move up higher,’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all the guests.”
And then Jesus utters the great saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Before Jesus leaves the party, he tells his host, “The next time you throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends and neighbors, so that they might return the favor some day and invite you to one of their nice parties. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Robert Coles tells a story about his first encounter with Dorothy Day, who was living and working with the poor in the slums of New York City. Coles was in Harvard Medical School at the time, studying to be a psychiatrist, proud of his status, and also proud that he had volunteered to work with Dorothy Day in helping the poor. He arrived for his first meeting to discover Day sitting at a table, deep in conversation with a very disheveled street person. She didn’t notice Coles had come into the room until they had finished their conversation. Then she asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”
Robert Coles was astounded by Dorothy Day’s humility. She had identified so completely with a so-called “nobody” as to remove all distinction between them. Coles said it changed his life. He said he learned more in that moment than in his four years at Harvard.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In this statement, we hear a great truth about humility. In emptying ourselves, we will find fulfillment. In humbling ourselves, we will be exalted. In a culture that prizes “the secrets of highly successful people” and urges us to “awaken our inner giant,” this sounds rather counterintuitive.
But is it true? Is Jesus right? Are Dante and Dorothy Day pointing us to the truth of Jesus’ statement?
We can submit this statement to the test of human experience. Can we walk through life on a perpetual high? Once we have found fulfillment, do we live from that place from then on? Or does the universe have a way of knocking us off our perches and emptying us out?
It seems more like the latter than the former. Even for those who have powerfully known and experienced the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, who have known in our hearts and minds the peace of God which passes understanding, they have also known the dark night of the soul and the fear and trembling of salvation.
Is this surprising? Disappointing? Should it be? After all, when Jesus called his disciples he didn’t promise them that they would be able to achieve anything in one year. Rather, he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
It seems that we are constantly moving back and forth between emptiness and fulfillment, between humility and exaltation, between death and resurrection. Life still knocks the wind out of us. The universe still reduces us to tears. Death and loss still bring us to our knees. But rather than try to awaken the giant or the hero within, we try to remember the truth and the promise that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).