Where Does Humility Come From?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 31
November 05, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Genuine, healthy forms of humility derive from spiritual growth that makes us into "good trees." We become humble out of gratitude for what God has done, and because it brings us true joy.

The matter of living a Christian life comes more easily for some than for others. That is not necessarily a judging statement. Some of us have a lot to plow through to find the resources to live a Christian life. Perhaps the fact that we have come here to this church means that at some level we want to live a life more faithful to the example of Christ.

Matthew, the gospel writer, wants to help us out. In many ways, the Gospel of Matthew understands Jesus as a teacher. The Sermon on the Mount near the beginning of Matthew provides teaching on how to live as a Christian. The sermon teaches us how to pray, to love, to practice discipline. Jesus continues teaching throughout the gospel.

Our efforts to live a Christian life usually begin after we have heard and absorbed the message that God has forgiven and blessed us. The Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of blessings. Once we let these blessings wash over us, we begin to respond by leading a Christian life. We don't lead a Christian life to earn God's favor, but in response to God's grace.

Early on, using the language of the prophet Isaiah, Matthew tells us that Jesus was the light that shown in the great darkness.1 Jesus tells us that in his ministry, the kingdom of heaven has come near.2 God has taken the initiative to reach out to us in love, with healing and salvation. We respond in our lives.

Flawed teachers

In today's passage from Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples - and by extension us - something that may strike us as strange. We might assume that the best way to learn more about the Christian life would be to study those who know much about it and who model it. But here Jesus says that we can learn about the life of faith even from people who don't live it themselves. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses's seat," Jesus said, "therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach."

In short, Jesus tells the disciples that some religious leaders have good things to say, and we should hear them, even though they themselves "talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk." We may have read Christian writers who had wise words, but whose lives fell short of their own ideals. We can still learn from them. The best teachers, of course, combine good words with good actions, but we can still learn some things from flawed Christians as well.

These scribes and Pharisees, however, are not good teachers or models when it comes to the complex topic of humility. "They do all their deeds to be seen by others," Jesus said. They draw attention to themselves, seek approval and act superior. We may feel frustrated by that because we need good role models for humility. Humility is a complex, slippery attribute. We can get it wrong in so many ways.

Ways to get humility wrong

If we want to take Jesus's words about humility seriously, we know not to brag about our accomplishments, not to always seek the center stage and not to treat others with disdain. We certainly should know not to assume that we have a special relationship with God that we have earned because of what we have done. We can't consider ourselves God's favorites. If we go there, we have much ground to cover before we can get the call to humility right. Yet, we have all met people who got humility wrong in another way. We have all met those who give us false humility. We have heard those who put themselves down in an attempt to get us to build them up. "Is this your pie for the pot-luck?" "Yes, it is, but it's not very good." "Oh no, I loved it!" "Oh, you're just saying that." "No, I really like it." "Are you sure?" "Yes, yes, it was delicious."

More seriously, we have met people who failed to reach their potential because they didn't believe in themselves. They didn't push themselves. They didn't take the risks they needed to take to achieve their best.

Humility is not putting ourselves down. Humility is not self-pity. Humility is not refusing to claim our gifts and use them for others and for the church. Humility is not staying in a bad situation because we think we don't deserve better. Humility is not clinging to behavior and beliefs that hurt us because we don't want to make ourselves vulnerable enough to get help. Humility isn't settling for a relationship with a person who isn't good for us just because we don't want to do the hard work of finding a healthy relationship. Humility isn't passivity in the face of injustice, either toward ourselves or others. True humility does not look at injustice and assume, "Well, there's nothing I can do about it."

Growing good humility

Jesus tells us in this passage to act with humility, to avoid the actions of some of the religious leaders of his day. He doesn't give us much instruction, unfortunately, in how to get there. He gives us no recipe for finding humility. For that, we have to sift through some of his other teachings and bring in some of what we have learned from those who have studied human nature through the centuries.

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught some important spiritual insights: "Either make the tree good and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure."3

We find true humility not by seeking to become humble, but by seeking to become a good tree. Proper humility comes from deep inner resources. We plug in here what we talked about earlier, the reading from those who have much to teach us, even, as Jesus said, from those who lead imperfect lives. We can learn much about humility and the lack of humility by watching life.

We know, at least instinctively, that bragging, arrogance and self-promotion all come ultimately from insecurity. The insecurity may come from childhood wounds. Those wounds can be hard to heal. Prayer can contribute to healing, but working with a therapist or spiritual advisor can also help us heal. We should do what we need to do to become a good tree - healed of anger and hurt, more and more in touch with God, sharing love with one another, claiming our spiritual gifts and knowing we deserve good things and good people in our lives. We feel the joy of spiritual growth, and we drop the need to push others out of our way.

Good trees yield good fruit

As a result of our spiritual growth into good trees, and during the process itself, we become the servants Jesus calls us to be. In becoming good trees, we can serve with a joyous heart, with genuine love for others, with gratitude toward God. We can find and claim our gifts for the church and for others. We can feed the hungry, we can help others find shelter, we can stand up to the systems that hurt others, we can expose racism and injustice, we can teach the rich about the needs of the poor.

Jesus said that if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted. We should not use humility as a back door to exaltation. We can acknowledge our own needs in proper ways. We can act in gratitude that Jesus has shown the light in the darkness and that through him the kingdom of heaven has come near. We act in gratitude for resurrection and all the triumph that holds. We act in love for others, as we recognize our interdependence. We seek to become good trees and faithful servants.

We trust God with whatever exalting God wants to do whenever God wants to do it. On this path, we will likely find that humility just falls into place on its own. God will create the humility within us. We learn humility as a response to what God has done, but also because it brings us joy.