An American missionary priest spent many years in Taiwan helping the poor, and he was very experienced and very good at what he did. When he returned to the United States, he became involved in a different kind of missionary work: a movement in New York City which first of all had its volunteers listen to the concerns and viewpoints of the poor, and give them an active role in decision-making, instead of automatically assuming that they as volunteers and experts knew what was best for the people they were serving. Reflecting on this approach later, the priest said, “I’ve been helping a 21-year-old learn to read, and I’m constantly amazed at his deep insights on life, human relationships, war, and poverty. Too often we ignore the wisdom of those with different social or economic backgrounds—but they have a lot to offer. Now I begin to understand what Jesus meant when He said He was present ‘in the least of His brothers and sisters’” (Homily Helps, August 28, 1983). Working with this group was a learning experience for the missionary, and also a humbling experience—in the best sense of the term. The priest already knew he was good and had a lot to offer; he also learned this was true for those he served—and this is what humility is all about. Being humble doesn’t mean denying the goodness in ourselves; it means recognizing and appreciating the presence of God in other people.
We cannot truly please God or others unless we strive for humility. The Old Testament book of Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29) reminds us that when we’re not obsessively concerned with making ourselves appear important, we’re more likely to observe and respond to the goodness around us—and this is a sign of true wisdom. In referring to Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19, 22-24) uses the images of an untouchable mountain, fire, gloomy darkness, a storm, and a majestic voice speaking from the cloud—all of which create an atmosphere of fear and force the people to keep their distance from God. However, the author is telling his readers that religion is no longer like this: Jesus is now the source of a new covenant—one rooted not in fear, but in love. By implication, because Jesus lives in other people, we should also relate to them with love and respect; instead of fearing others and automatically keeping our distance, we should be humble enough to look for Christ’s presence in them. In the Gospel of Luke (14:1, 7-14), Our Lord tells us that humility has a practical value: it can save us from embarrassment. There’s also an even more important spiritual value: it enables us to grow in our love for others and for God. Jesus was invited to a dinner, and noticed that, as soon as the doors were opened the guests rushed to the table to grab the best seats, so they’d be closest to the host and be served before anyone else. However, sometimes the host would rearrange the seating by calling a special guest to come sit near him, thus forcing one of the other guests to go to the end of the table. Our Lord used this situation to illustrate the value of humility; He also stressed the importance of helping those who are unable to return our favors. God alone sees what is truly important, and we should desire to please Him more than anyone else.
A truck once got stuck under an overpass, backing up traffic for blocks. The driver couldn’t budge it, and an official from the trucking company was called; when he arrived, he too was stumped by the problem. A few kids were watching all this, and one of them called out, “Hey, Mister, I know how to get the truck out,” but the official responded, “I don’t need advice from a know-it-all like you, kid, so mind your own business.” Ignoring the man’s rudeness, the boy shouted, “Just let the air out of the tires and you’ll be able to move it.” The official stopped in his tracks, smiled at the kid, and did what he said—and it worked. Afterwards, the man admitted to himself that the boy had humbled him, and that he deserved it (Jack McArdle, 150 More Stories for Preachers & Teachers, #82).
It’s good for us to have a little air let out of our own spiritual tires every now and then; because pride is so spiritually dangerous, humility is spiritually healthy and beneficial. Indeed, the Lord wants and commands us to be humble. What exactly does this mean? First of all, we shouldn’t practice false humility by denying our talents or turning away from challenges to improve ourselves. If we’re asked to help others in some way, for instance, it’s not good if we always say, “Oh, no, I can’t do that—you’d better get someone else,” and it’s not right for us to think about ourselves, “I’m no good and my life has no value,” and it’s not right if we think, “I’m a worthless sinner, and even with the Lord’s help there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to change this.” God made us, and therefore we are worthwhile; we give Him no glory if we deny our talents and abilities or doubt the ability of His grace to sanctify and improve and transform us. If we’re truly going to accept God’s love, and the value and dignity of others, we must also accept the goodness within ourselves.
Secondly, being humble means treating people with respect, regardless of their social status, age, or background, and it means being willing to learn from anyone when given the opportunity. Even though I spent almost nine years studying to be a priest, and have continued reading and learning for the last thirty-seven years, I’m not an expert on God or faith or life. I don’t have all the answers, and I’ve found that, as long as I’m humble enough to do so, there’s so much I can learn from you about religious faith and Christian charity and everyday courage. All of us can learn from each other—not just children from parents, but also parents from children, the old from the young, the intelligent from the simple. True wisdom implies a willingness to learn from anyone in any situation.
Lastly, being humble means helping others whenever we get the chance—giving directions to a lost stranger, listening sympathetically to a neighbor’s problem, donating canned goods for the poor, rearranging our schedule to accommodate someone else, or doing a favor for anyone in need—for in these and so many other ways we recognize that Jesus lives in other people and that they are valuable and important, just as we are.
Jesus was humble—not because He was in any way inferior, but because it allowed Him to express His love and appreciation for everyone He met. We must strive to imitate His example—not in the negative sense of putting ourselves down, but in the positive sense of recognizing, accepting, and responding to Christ’s presence in others.