We can be sure that by Jesus’ reference to people who “humble” themselves he didn’t mean those who deny their own talents or abilities. Nor could he have had in mind the sad situation of those who honestly do not recognize their good qualities and who live, therefore, with a stunted self-image.
No, what Jesus must have meant by “humble” persons had to be those who have an honest and balanced view of themselves — people who know that “no one is perfect,” that we all are mixed bags of good and bad, pluses and minuses, all gifted differently, and that we must neither stand in judgment of others nor belittle ourselves. Ultimately, perfect humility is simply the total truth about oneself.
This gospel lesson is introduced by St. Luke as having to do with those who were proud of their own righteousness but who hated everyone else. It’s immediately clear that the reason for that hatred was their perception that everyone else is inferior to themselves. And the question that Jesus asks is, who stands justified (approved, blessed) by God: is it the one who acts like his own defense attorney and puts forth all the reasons why he should be acquitted, even honored; or is it the one who presents only the unvarnished truth about her imperfect self and, in effect, gives thanks to God that she is accepted and loved exactly as she is? Actually, we knew the answer even before Jesus told us.
As we move closer to what could be one of the most critical elections in the history of our beloved country, we might well think about how this Gospel teaching relates to us as a people, a nation. As one of the world’s most fortunate countries, is it possible that we are much more conscious of our virtues than of our faults?
We speak of ourselves as generous, yet a considerable percentage of even our own population lives far below the poverty line. We manage to pay our athletes and actors and CEOs millions of dollars a year, while our cities fail to house and feed so many of the destitute.
We are proud of our heritage of patriotism and diligence and sacrifice and honor, even as we blush with shame at the corruption that infects the systems on which our society functions: politics, industry & commerce, education, entertainment, and – saddest of all – religion.
We say that we have a heart, and indeed we do, but at the same time millions of our fellow human beings in other less fortunate parts of the world slowly, painfully, die from starvation.
We stand for peace and justice — while waging wars that kill and maim our own as well as those we call the enemy.
Like it or not, we all stand before the Creator God, all hoping, like the two characters in Jesus’ story, to be approved. Little good it does us to parade our virtues, as the one fool did, when what is required is only that we admit our selfishness and sin and avail ourselves of the transforming action of God’s unconditional love.
Jim Wallis, the evangelical pastor who runs the Sojourners, a progressive organization of advocates for social justice, was quoted some years ago in a lengthy article concerning religion and politics in the New York Times Magazine as saying, “Faith can cut in so many ways. If (we’re) penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, as Martin Luther King did. But when it’s designed to certify our righteousness – that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There’s no reflection…Real faith leads us to deeper reflection and not – not ever – to the thing we as humans so very much want…easy certainty.”