Humility is Strength
I. Humility is strength.
Tall, muscular, dappled-grey with a black mane, bold and striking, the American Saddlebred named Traveller was one of the greatest warhorses in history. When General Robert E. Lee purchased him in 1861, a bond was forged that lasted through the war and unto the grave. Left to his own, the horse was anything but docile. He could be over-spirited and unmanageable. But the touch or voice of General Lee honed in all the horse’s strength. Bullets flew past him, canons fired, and bayonets clashed just feet away, but he remained steady as a mountain, because of his trust in his general. When Robert E. Lee died in 1870, Traveller followed behind the hearse all draped in black.
The gospels often praise meekness and submission, but these are far too often misunderstood. We associate humility with words like docile, weak, and timid. However, the true meaning of humility is far closer to strength and vigor. Humility is much more like a warhorse.
When Jesus Christ says, “blessed are the meek” (Mat. 5:5) and St. Paul speaks of the “meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) they are using the Greek word πραυσ. In its historic use, Πραυσ described a horse trained for battle. They captured the stallions in the wild, broke their wills, and honed in their strength. They “meeked” the horses. Like Traveller in the Civil War, the best and strongest warhorses are the ones most submissive.
II. Humility is strength refined by confidence in God.
In our gospel reading today, our Lord gave a parable about humility.
“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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” (Luke 14. 7-11).
In our culture, most of us don’t run into this scenario. We’re a pretty egalitarian people. We get uneasy with titles, dignitaries, and all that. We use first names strictly and if you don’t you get funny looks. Trust me, I’ve come to get a lot of pleasure nowadays just observing the way people react when I introduce myself as “Father Peter.” You’d think I’d said something rude. Whether or not this is good or bad, we like to be on the same plane.
So it’s hard to relate to Jesus’ parable on a literal level. So what if he gets to sit in a bigger chair than me? It doesn’t concern me.
But we can relate to our Lord’s words on a different level.
III. How often do you get offended when someone doesn’t respect you?
Do you ever get indignant? Does an unkind word ever get under your skin? Do you want to get back, get even? How do you respond to authority? Do you ever get reactive, rebellious, or pushy?
We all go there. When we do, we’re right back to Jesus Christ’s parable.
It’s no different than with the seats of honor and the seats of dishonor. If you notice, Jesus Christ doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with having VIP’s and Not-VIP’s. He doesn’t say its wrong to sit in a “higher” place or to sit in a “lower” place. In fact, He suggests that if you’re invited to a place of honor, that’s fine and swell. If you’re not invited then that’s also fine. It’s the same thing in our relationships with other people, in our parish, with our family, our friends and our peers. In the fourth century, St. Basil had this to say: “[Don’t] make a show of humility by resisting strongly: humility is practiced rather by simple submission.”
IV. The problem is in the heart.
Why are we looking for honor? Why does it matter if someone elevates us or deflates us? Why should a person’s opinion of us have any impact on our happiness or inner-peace?
When you confess to the same priest for a long time, you start being able to predict what they’ll say. When I was in seminary, I had the honor of confessing to his grace, Bishop John Abdullah. I’ll admit, there have been times when I’ve felt hurt or angry because of something someone has said, or become stressed because so-and-so might think such-and-such. Bishop John smiles and asks, “So which of the Ten Commandments do you think you’re breaking.” By now I know the answer, “Yes, the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Can you see this?
When we allow someone else’s opinion to pull us down we’ve broken that first and ultimate rule. We’ve made a fellow creature into a god. We’ve supplanted our devotion to God with a devotion to a man or a woman, who is just as hurt and broken as we are. It’s a kind of idolatry.
When Christ tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27) he means with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. He asks from us a love that is sole and undivided, not mixed and strewn across a crowd of a hundred.
It’s no different in a marriage. Can you imagine a husband who doesn’t mind whether or not his wife admires him, but is more worried about the admiration of all the other women in the room? In the same way, God has created us for one love, one devotion, one intimate marriage with our souls.
V. Humility is freedom.
Before a stallion is broken, it runs wild and out of control. In the same way, we can spend our lives spinning in a hundred directions, chasing the newest fads, worried and stressed about being respected or disrespected, liked or disliked, successful or unsuccessful, doing things our way and then wondering where God is when we fall and break our necks. It’s exhausting and it’s meaningless. But the more we submit our lives to Christ, the more free we are and the happier. We can spend our lives trying to spin, justify and rationalize, or we can simply give it up and follow His way. We can build our self-worth on the opinions of one another, or we can build it on our relationship with Him.
Traveller didn’t care what the other soldiers felt. He didn’t mind trekking through miles of mud or galloping in a battle of bullets and canon fire. His general was his anchor, so he submitted happy and free.
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
The way of God is so simple. If we build our anchor on Jesus Christ, we too can be free and strong.
VI. The Church gives us a path.
The very word “Orthodoxy” means ‘right living’ or ‘the way.’
When Christ ascended into heaven He promised us the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who would guide the Church in all things (John 13:16). St. Paul explains that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (I Timothy 3:15). In every century, since the first century, the Orthodox Church has given us a way, through community, sacraments, confession and forgiveness, fasting, prayer and almsgiving, and each and every tradition passed down and guarded unchanged.
When we submit God’s way we become like the meeked horse. In Jesus Christ we run free and strong.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.