August 28, 2016
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
When we witness a truly great performance—a superb violin solo or a brilliant performance of Macbeth—something beyond the ticket price, the venue, and the pre-performance hob-nobbing settles into us. That is, despite the advertising around the performance or how much the performers were paid, the fact that they went through all the rehearsals and years of practice to achieve the mastery they demonstrate before our eyes comes home to our hearts for what it is: humble. Yes, even the greatest and best-paid performers who have truly mastered their skill show themselves to be extraordinarily generous human beings. They worked hard, endured much preparation, showed up at the performance and displayed their ability. We, as the audience, receive their performance as a gift.
The Gift of Humility
This Sunday’s first reading from Sirach starts off with an odd adage about humility. “My son, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts” (Sir 3:17 NAB). The sycophants that surround the wealthy enjoy their presence because of its actual or potential financial rewards. Benefits draw humans like moths to a flame. Yet Sirach insists that the virtue of humility trumps actual gift-giving since in itself a humble nature is a gift to others. Going back to the idea of a transcendent performance, true humility takes the form of generosity, a living and acting not out of self-interest, but for the sake of others.
What is Humility?
Humility is annoyingly difficult to define. Thomas Aquinas says humility is “that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him, but he subjects himself to his superior.” Unfortunately, limits and stretching are both metaphorical and few of us have “superiors” in the medieval sense. The Catechism tries to define humility in terms of “poverty of heart” (CCC2544-47), which draws on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The difficulty with humility is that it is like chocolate syrup. You might put too little in the glass and it only discolors the milk rather than flavoring it. You might put in too much and make the milk sickeningly sweet. Humility needs to be taken at the proper dosage: too little and we wind up arrogant; too much and we become obsequious doormats.
Enemies to Humility
Finding the balance between self-exalting pride and self-abasing obsequiousness is a challenge. On the one hand, we entertain a fictional view of ourselves as some sort of moral hero or spiritual giant who “clocks in” higher than other people. On the other hand, we succumb to a different false view of ourselves where all of our strengths vanish and we submit to others without question. Arrogance leads us to take foolish chances and too much responsibility while the obsequious person fails to stand up for the truth and fails to shoulder appropriate responsibilities. What’s interesting to note about these contrary “vices” that are opposed to humility is that they both grab onto a fiction, something that’s not real—either an inflated view of self or the opposite, a deflated view. In fact, real humility is about embracing the truth. Real humility embraces the truth about oneself in all regards, both good and bad. A sober and correct view of oneself does justice to reality, to what you really are and to others.
Vaulting Too High
The more things you have accomplished, the more you will be tempted to pride, which is why Sirach warns us, “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself” (Sir 3:18 RSV). Yet pride is tricky. It reminds me of pole-vaulting. A humble pole-vaulter will set the bar at a height low enough that he can get over it, but high enough that he’ll still be in competition. A proud pole-vaulter would set the bar too high and fail to reach it. Sirach warns against this when he says, “Seek not what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power” (Sir 3:21 RSV). He is not discouraging us from learning or growing, but telling us to resist the temptation to vault too high. If we are truly humble, we will take life and growth in slow, steady stages rather than trying to peer into the vast mysteries of the universe without preparation. You can’t become a cosmologist without passing your calculus course.
A Listening Ear, A Generous Heart
The last instruction Sirach gives us in this reading is that “The mind of the intelligent man will ponder a parable, and an attentive ear is the wise man’s desire” (Sir 3:29 RSV). If we want to grow in wisdom and humility, then we must be willing to listen to wisdom. And that means listening in the best sense, with an open heart, willing to change and be corrected. The wise man wants an attentive ear because he has something to give—wisdom. Only when there is somebody listening is he able to exercise his role as giver. That brings us to the two things that we want from this reading as followers of Jesus: a listening ear and a generous heart. We want to be the humble, willing student of wisdom who graciously and joyously embraces the new truths we encounter. Second, we want to pass it on to others with a generous heart—just like those transcendent performers. Our hearts should not be closed in, seeking mere subjective pleasures. Rather, they should be open to others, giving ourselves away in love time and again. I think it is only in the joy of giving, of loving, that we truly discover what humility is.