The Manly Art of Humility
There is nothing that makes a man manlier or a woman stronger than humility.
In our Gospel today, we read, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This message is echoed throughout the scriptures. Matthew 18 states, “Whosoever shall humble himself as a child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven,” and James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
Humility is the crown jewel of all the virtues, but it is often completely misunderstood.
How often do we mistake humility for weakness; for being milk toast? We might think that to be a man is to lift yourself up by your bootstraps and to insist on your own way; to be a woman is to submit to no one. We’ve all been raised with the same slogans: “Exert your individuality.” “Do what you want to do.” “Question the authorities and be your own man.” There might be some merit to these, if they’re put in the right context, but more often they miss the mark utterly.
The way of the true man and the true woman looks very different.
Let’s turn to the scripture.
Jesus Christ is in a room with a group of men, and notices that several were concerned about getting the most distinguished seats. So He tells this parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It isn’t hard to put this in a modern context.
Weddings, nowadays, also have seats reserved for the VIP– the very important people – and the rest of the seats are for, I suppose, the NVIP – the not very important people. We have a tendency to segregate the elite from the non-elite, the special from the ordinary – and interestingly, Jesus Christ never condemns this. Today, where we value egalitarianism so much, you’d expect our Lord to say, ‘Get rid of those barriers between the lower class and the upper,’ or ‘Make sure you Christians all sit together in a circle without anyone appearing to be more important than the others.’ But He clearly doesn’t say this. There’s no social gospel here. We can waist so much time worrying about being treated equally or getting our justice now – but the Lord’s whole point is that we don’t need to worry about that. Our reward will be in heaven, not here on earth. There will always be inequality. Life on earth will never be fair. And that isn’t really a problem.
The real concern is this: how will you and I respond to what comes our way?
Will we insist that we deserve more and become indignant? Or will we accept whatever crosses our path and do the work in front of us? Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, “The spiritual life consists of one thing: the way we play the cards that we’ve been dealt.”
So the next question, how then should we play these cards?
In a homily on this gospel, St. Basil explains that we shouldn’t hope to sit at the VIP table or the NVIP table. That’s for the wedding host to decide. If we’re respected, so be it. If we’re disrespect, so be it.
“Humility,” he writes, is “simply submission.”
Or as C. S. Lewis puts it: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Has anyone seen the movie called “Gladiator”? It’s a very popular film in my generation, and its message, in its own way, is essentially Christian. The story looks at two men: one named Maximus, the Roman Centurion played by Russel Crow, and the other named Commodus, the cowardly son of Marcus Aurelius. At the start of the film, the emperor appoints Maximus to be his successor and tells his son Commodus that he’s unworthy of the honor and must step down. Maximus doesn’t prefer the crown. He’d much rather retire in his cozy estate and leave the politics to others, but his duty to Rome comes first. But Commodus desired nothing other than fame. In great bitterness, he kills the emperor, usurps his throne, and sends Maximus into slavery. The one goes up and other goes down.
Commodus sought the seat of honor, and he endeavored to raise himself up at whatever cost. Maximus, on the other hand, submitted to fate. He didn’t wallow in self-pity. He didn’t begrudge the injustice done to him. Instead, he accepted his fate, and through loving his fellow men and his fellow country, rose from the dust. He was a true warrior, because he was a true servant. If you’ve seen the film you’ll know how it ends. Commodus dies in shame. Maximus saves the day and restores peace to the empire.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What is humility?
Is it to stand in the back lines sheepishly, or is it to simply do the work given you?
On a last note, I think we can best learn about humility by looking at our grandparents. Somehow, humility was taught to former generations much better than it is today.
I remember when I was in seminary and met an old man named Ernie. He was part of that World War II generation which sees things so differently than my peers. We’d meet on Saturdays for coffee and conversation, and one day it dawned me what made Ernie so different. In nearly every conversation he talked about duty and discipline. Duty and discipline. Even though I had been raised in a Christian home, I rarely thought about these before meeting Ernie. Though he’d lived a successful life, he wasn’t concerning about climbing the social ladder or looking out for number one. He based his life on one goal: to serve God and to serve others. Today, he explained to me, so many spouses leave their partners because they don’t feel satisfied. But for his generation, it didn’t matter so much whether you enjoyed being married or not, you stuck with it because it was your duty. Today, we’re much more concerned with feelings and individuality. We think we’ll find fulfillment in pursuing our own interests. But what Ernie knew, all so well, is that our purpose isn’t to be served but to serve.
The same goes for all the rules and traditions in the Church. They can feel confining to the modern man. But our ancestors understood so much better that we that you can only be free when we learn to submit. Duty and Discipline. The life of a servant; the life of a soldier.
This is what it means to be a true man and a true woman. This is our purpose here on earth: to become servants of God and one another, for “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”