A highly educated, self-important university professor found himself sitting next to an elderly farmer on a long airline flight. The professor had a very high IQ and was used to being the smartest person in the room, so in his arrogance he decided to have a little bit of fun at the farmer’s expense. He proposed a game in which he’d ask the farmer a question, and if he couldn’t answer it correctly, the farmer would have to pay him $5. Then it would be the farmer’s turn to ask a question, and if the professor couldn’t answer it correctly, he’d have to pay him $500—which seemed fair, because of his far greater education and intelligence. The farmer agreed, and so the professor asked him, “How far is it from the earth to the moon?” The farmer silently reached into his billfold, took out a $5 bill, and handed it to the professor, who smiled in smug satisfaction and said, “All right, my good fellow; now it’s your turn to ask me something.” The elderly farmer said, “Here’s my question. What goes up a hill with three legs, and comes down with four?” The arrogant professor was stunned into silence. Over the next half hour he wracked his brain, struggled with the question, and even tried researching the answer on his laptop, to no avail; he also called several of his colleagues at the university, but they too were stumped. All the while the farmer leaned back, closed his eyes, and took a nap. Finally the professor awakened him, handed him $500, and ruefully admitted, “All right, you got me—so what does go up a hill with three legs and come back down with four?” The farmer took out another $5 bill, handed it to the professor while saying “I have no idea,” and went back to sleep (Fr. Joe Robinson, Guiding Light: Centered in Christ, Year C, p. 140). We all enjoy seeing a vain, arrogant person tripped up by someone he considers far inferior to himself, but this theme is about much more than a story in which the tables are turned. Jesus warns us that pride can easily be our spiritual undoing; only those who strive for humility can be sure of having a place in God’s Kingdom.
If we saw God face to face, we wouldn’t dare speak or act as if we were equal to Him; no, we would humbly bow before Him, fully conscious of our sins and our unworthiness. The readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time tell us that we must also exercise humility in our relationships with other people. The Book of Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29) instructs us that if we conduct our affairs with humility, we will be loved and respected while winning God’s favor, and in the Gospel of Luke (14:1, 7-14), Jesus advises us that by seeking a lower place, we’ll avoid unnecessary humiliation and may even be raised up to a more important place. If we seek to honor God and serve other people, we don’t need to worry about our status or gaining a favorable reputation—those things will take care of themselves. The Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19, 22-24) tells us that the only way of approaching Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the royal court of God our Creator, filled with angels and saints, is through Jesus Christ—and because He humbled Himself to fulfill His mission, we too must master our natural human pride and instead strive for perfect humility.
If you were to ask avid basketball fans “Who was the greatest player in NBA history?,” you’d get a variety of answers, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dr. J (the nickname for Julius Erving), and perhaps even Wilt Chamberlain. One other name that would certainly be brought up is that of Michael Jordan, the former superstar for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s (and a fierce rival of the Detroit Pistons). One night a Chicago sportswriter witnessed him do something great—not during a game, but afterwards. As Jordan was headed toward his car outside the arena, he noticed a boy in a wheelchair, whose neck was bent at an unusual angle, so that he couldn’t look directly forward. Jordan walked over and knelt down next to the boy, who was overcome with excitement; he spoke softly to him, looked him directly in the eye, and put his arm around the youngster’s frail shoulders. The boy’s dad tried to snap a photograph, but had trouble with the camera—so Jordan continued kneeling next to his young fan, patiently waiting until the photo was finally taken. Then Jordan said goodbye and walked to his car, leaving behind a boy and his dad, both crying tears of gratitude and joy, and a sports- writer wise enough to realize he had just witnessed something far greater than anything he had ever seen on a basketball court (Brian Cavanaugh, More Sower’s Seeds, p. 51).
You and I will never be able to imitate the amazing things Michael Jordan did with a basketball, but all of us can imitate his example of humility and compassion. Pride was the sin which transformed Lucifer, the greatest and most beautiful of all the angels, into the hideous and hateful creature now known as Satan; humility allowed a simple maiden named Mary to become the Mother of the Redeemer and later be exalted as Queen of Heaven and earth. Pride poisons our souls and robs our good deeds of any lasting value in God’s eyes; humility enriches our efforts to do good and pleases Our Lord, while also preparing us for eternal glory in His presence.
Humility can include letting the other person decide something, instead of insisting on our own way, and seeking opportunities to praise or compliment others, instead of trying to draw attention to ourselves. Being humble means not judging other people, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and remembering that they too were created by God, and thus have infinite value in His eyes. True humility involves admitting our mistakes and sincerely seeking forgiveness from anyone we’ve hurt or offended, even as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us. A humble approach to life goes hand-in-hand with a sense of gratitude for our blessings and opportunities, and a recognition that we need other people—even some who may not be as talented or attractive or intelligent as we are. Above all, a humble spirit requires an awareness that, without God’s help, we can do nothing worthwhile and that our lives have no true meaning.
If we let pride take over, we not only risk an exchange in which someone gets the best of us—as happened to the university professor, who was outsmarted by a simple farmer to the tune of $490. Far more importantly, if we act proudly and arrogantly, we risk the loss not of money, but of our eternal souls. It’s very simple: pride will ultimately lead us to hell, whereas humility will eventually bring us to Heaven. Jesus wants us to learn this lesson well, and if we truly are wise, we will take it to heart.