It's easy to misunderstand the virtue of humility. As an old and amusing tune has it: “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” It is good to remember that Jesus is “perfect in every way.” Yet He is “meek and humble of heart.” Humility does not contradict perfection. Jesus reveals the meaning and dignity of humility.
God created man in His image and likeness. A son looks like his father, not the other way around. Humility recognizes that God created us, and we reflect Him. God is God, and we carry the Divine imprint as His creatures.
The Devil tempts the First Parents with knowledge that belongs to God alone. “… but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:3-5)
The Devil wants us to think of ourselves as the masters – the final arbiters – of good and evil. So we clarify our values. We arrogantly presume, when we continue to live in sin, that, “Jesus would understand.” But God does not need our advice; we need His instruction. Humility accepts that God alone defines the meaning of good and evil.
In the Gospel, Jesus reaffirms the teaching of Genesis: “[A] ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’” (Luke 18:18-19) Humility is this: We participate in God’s goodness when we accept the Ten Commandments on God’s terms, and try to live them with His grace.
Jesus at the Last Supper, says: “This is my body.” In His humility, Jesus points to the bread for our food, and mere bread becomes for us His body, blood, soul, and divinity. So it seems appropriate to place the accent on “is”: “This is my body.”
A humble person recognizes reality. When we say, “This is my body," we acknowledge the truth of our existence. We are blood and bone, handsome, pretty or plain, male or female. We are God’s handiwork.
But the ageless temptation remains. We point to ourselves: “This is my body.” With the accent on “my,” we imply that we are the sole owners of our bodies. We alone presume to define the nature and meaning of our bodies. The arrogance we see all around us – from the chaos of gender confusion to the alleged right of a woman to kill her unborn baby – is rooted in placing an accent on the wrong word: “This is my body!”
Saint Paul calmly redirects us to the path of humility:
“Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:14-20)
The Devil is persistent. When we humbly accept God’s dominion, the ancient serpent tries to persuade us to follow an equally destructive path. With advances in science, we can see how God’s astonishing power is beyond comprehension. So here is the temptation: The more we know about the unfathomable mysteries of creation, the more astounding the power of God becomes compared to ours, and the farther we feel from Him.
In pondering the vast splendor of the universe, perhaps many develop a sense that an individual human being counts for nothing. With feelings of abandonment, we may seek and demand self-esteem on our terms. But self-esteem without God is an illusion. So we fall short, and we become needy perpetual victims blaming others for every personal failure. Maybe the modern faithlessness is rooted in despairing of finding peace with an infinitely transcendent God.
But God sent His only Begotten Son into the world to rescue us. The more insignificant we feel, the more God's grace moves us to look beyond ourselves, to look for a Savior and find peace in His saving love: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) We are His friends.
The Cross says, “You may seem small, but I created you in my image, and I invite you to see as I see, and to love as I love.” With the mysteries of natural science as the backdrop, the Cross becomes even more astonishing as an act of God’s merciful love. Why would the Creator suffer for us in our lowliness unless we count for something – not just something, but something worth the body and blood of God?
The Cross is not just a gift given to an almost infinitely inferior creature. It is also a challenge that requires us to think as God thinks and invites us to enter into communion with Him. Our union is real: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it. For this is My Body, which will be given up for you.”
The Good Samaritan stopped because he was humble. He did not consider his journey more important than tending to a soul in desperate need. His humility led to Christ-like sacrificial generosity. In humility, we see God for Who He is. We rejoice in our inestimable dignity. We see our neighbors with the same dignity God confers on them.
In Jesus, humility brings us to perfection – and eternal life.
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.