In today’s gospel, Jesus is once again speaking about the scribes and Pharisees. He is criticizing them for not being faithful to the covenant with God, in particular in their role as leaders of the community. They had become caught up in the outward appearances and trappings of the office, but had not really turned their hearts to God. The phylacteries that Jesus speaks of were little boxes with scripture passages written inside them that they wore on their left arm and forehead. These were outwards signs of their following of the Law of God.
At the end of the gospel Jesus highlights the quality that He most looks for in his followers – humility. He says, “The greatest among you must be our servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. This definitely does not sound like His description of the scribes and Pharisees.
The virtue of humility is problematic in our time and culture. First of all, it is not regarded by the world as a ‘virtue’. In a world where it is important to push your way to the front of the line, to be self-sufficient, and to achieve recognition, humility is not valued. Rather, it is seen as a negative, as a flaw. Being pushy and even aggressive – especially in the workplace – is regarded as a plus. For many people humility is seen as a sign of weakness, of insecurity, and low self-esteem. That is why the example of Mother Teresa caught so much attention because although she attracted worldwide attention, her demeanor and character was one of great humility.
It is interesting to look at the definitions of humility. They include “a lack of false pride”, “freedom from pride or arrogance”, “a modest estimate of one‘s own worth”. That is the humility that Jesus is applauding. That is the humility that He bore witness to. That is the humility of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and the saints. I took particular note that the first definition I found was “a lack of false pride”. I mention that in particular, because sometimes people feel that humility means that one is ashamed of oneself, or that they are insecure and have no pride. Pride is an important virtue, but not the “false” pride the definition speaks of. It is that “false pride” that creates obstacles between people because one feels superior than others. It is that “false pride” that distances one from God because one feels they don’t need God. Real pride is healthy and seems like the other side of the coin of humility – real pride is recognizing that who we are and what we have, and what we have made of ourselves is a gift from God. We have been good stewards and are using well all that we have been given. Our use of time, talents and treasure have been to build up the human family, contribute to the Church, and to give praise to God. False pride says “I did it myself” and “What I have and am is for me.”
Jesus, God-made-man, showed humility throughout His life and ministry. The pinnacle of this modeling of humility was at the Last Supper (John 13:1-20) when he washed the feet of His apostles. The washing of feet, although it means nothing to us in our time and culture, was a sign of respect and courtesy to one’s guests. Upon entering one’s home this ritual was performed. This job was the bottom of the totem pole in a household. This was for the newest employee. The host would never wash the feet of their guests. Yet Jesus washed their feet. He explicitly told them “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. I tell you solemnly, no servant is greater than his master.” This rings true with our gospel of today when Jesus tell us that the greatest must be the “servant” of all. Again, not a sought after role in our society today, but rather to be avoided. To be the boss is important, not to be the “servant”! To be a “servant” is not a sign of success in our world.
There are many ways that this dynamic can translate into everyday life. At home, at work or at school, there will always be things that we may consider ‘beneath us’, a task that we may find demeaning or ‘below us’. It may be taking out the garbage at home, or picking up after a coworker, or helping out a classmate. It may be caring for a sick person and doing some of the not so clean or attractive services that they require. It may even take the form of helping someone recognize their gifts and talents, and how they could use them better – rather than let them find out the hard way.
Bogdan Jański showed great humility after his conversion. He realized his vulnerability and need, and how God was bringing forth in him a wisdom and understanding, a vision, and a zeal for service that could only come from God. His gratitude expressed itself in humble service, and leadership of his band of followers – the future Resurrectionists.