Humility: Honesty and Humanity, Not Hubris or Humiliation
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
October 28, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on October 27, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14.

While Luke tells us that today’s parable is directed at people who are “convinced of their own righteousness and despise everyone else,” I bet we can all find a lot in here to pray about!

All three of our readings today talk about confidence and humility. In my experience, it seems that many Christians do not understand what spiritual humility is. We’ll explore what true Christian humility is today.

Our gospel passage is the origin of “The Jesus Prayer,” a prayer used especially frequently by our Orthodox sisters and brothers. Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on us sinners!

In the thousands of confessions I’ve heard, more than a few people have told me about their struggles with the sin of pride. I’ve come to the conclusion that pride is actually a symptom of its opposite: a lack of self-esteem. 

Think about it: you don’t brag about everything you do well, to everyone you know, at all times, do you? I have no need to boast about the things of which I’m truly competent: I already know that I’m good at them, so there’s no need to tell anyone. When I’m nervous that others will notice that I’m bad at something, that’s when I’m more likely to brag about something else, hoping to distract them.

What do you think of the Pharisee and his motivations? Is he praying out loud about how well he follows the Law in the hope that others will overhear him? Does he want to talk about how good he is in some areas, so that he can distract himself – or perhaps distract God – from thinking about how he falls short in other ways? To me, it doesn’t sound like the Pharisee is fooling anyone but himself. 

On the other hand, looking at the tax collector, he’s humble. He recognizes that God is God, and he is not. He realizes that he must rely on the LORD. 

But let’s not misinterpret what true Christian humility is. One year when I was a campus minister, a professor taught some of our students a beautiful prayer, called the Litany of Humility. Some students were really drawn to this prayer, and they talked with me privately about how much it spoke to them. However, there were a few students who were very public about using this prayer. At some point, it seemed as if this prayer had inadvertently become for some of them less a prayer of humility in the spirit of the tax collector in the parable, but more of a humblebrag in the style of the Pharisee: “Hey, everyone! Look at how humble I am!”

True Christian humility is not supposed be a beating of the breast, telling God – or anyone else who will listen – that that you’re incompetent at everything. C. S. Lewis gave a good description of true Christian humility. He said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” 

Or, to think about it in an oxymoronic way: humility requires confidence. True Christian humility is having sufficient confidence that God loves us as we are, so that we aren’t obsessed with trying to impress every person at every moment for everything we do. Humility is the confidence that we don’t have to do more in order for God to love us more. 

In our second reading – a passage often read at Paulist funerals – Paul is boasting about the extent to which he has proclaimed the gospel, but it seems to come from a genuine place of modesty. What’s the difference between Paul’s boast and that of the Pharisee? Paul realizes that he has accomplished many great things, but only because all the gifts and direction he has received comes from God. Paul recognizes that without God, he is nothing. So, to further flesh out what we’ve already said: Christian humility requires us to have confidence in God’s Providence. 

As we enter our last month in our lectionary year with the Gospel of Luke, I’m struck by the themes that Luke has forcefully illustrated over and over again:

  • Jesus has instructed us on how to pray at least 4 weekends out of the last 14 (Luke 11:1-13, 17:11-19, 18:1-8, 18:9-14).
  • Jesus has treated individuals or groups outside the power structure of Jewish religious society with dignity and praise – lifting up the poor at least 3 times (5:1-11, 6:20-26, 16:19-31), praising Samaritans at least twice (10:25-37, 17:11-19), welcoming other non-Jews at least twice (13:22-30, 14:7-14), sharing and collaborating with women at least twice (8:1-3, 10:38-42), not to mention specifically praising widows twice (7:11-17, 18:1-8). We’ve heard Jesus’ love for sinners at least three times already (7:38-50, 15:1-32, 16:1-8), and we’ll hear it again next week (19:1-10).
  • Quoting Isaiah, Mary, Simeon, and John the Baptist, Luke has had Jesus and others prophesy at least 10 times that the mighty will be cast down and the lowly will be lifted up (1:46-55, 2:29-38, 3:4-6; 3:7-20, 4:14-21, 6:20-26, 6:27-38, 12:13-21, 14:7-14, 18:1-8).

This gives us additional context about how Luke envisions that we should prayerfully, humbly approach God. No matter how lowly, no matter how powerless, no matter how incompetent we may feel, the Holy Spirit compels us to proclaim the gospel and build up the kingdom. Christian humility gives us the confidence that, despite our imperfections, God will work through us.