True Humility

1.             ?Thank God, I?m not like you! Do I get your attention?? These are the words of the Pharisee in today?s Gospel reading. Today is the 16th Sunday of Luke. Today the Triodion, the three week Pre-Lenten period, begins.  Every year at this time we read the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. We learn many things from this parable. Let?s touch on three themes. First, people frequent the Temple for prayer and worship. They did not just stay in their homes to pray. Rather they participated in communal offerings of sacrifice and praise. Second, that many different types of people lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding communities.  In this story we are told about two kinds. The Pharisee was part of a religious group who zealously followed the written Law of Moses. The Publican was a tax collector, a Jew hired by the Romans to take money from his own people. Third, and most importantly, in this parable we learn what true humility is.

2.             A great deal has been written about the theme of humility. In my research I ran across some interesting quotations.  For example, ?An egotist is a person who is me-deep in conversation.? and ?Humility is a strange thing; the moment you think you have it, you have lost it.? and ?An egotist says, ?Everyone has a right to my opinion.?? another ?There are two types of people in the world: those who come into the room and say, ?Well, here I am!? and those who come and say, ?Ah, there you are!?? These are sayings that we can all relate to in some way. The Pharisee no doubt was an egotist, a me-first type of person. Christ notes his arrogance by saying that he prayed to himself. And that is what is so confounding in this Parable to the first-century Jews. You see, the Pharisees were considered to be righteous people because they followed the Law. The Pharisee proves himself before God by saying that He is not an extortioner, that he is just, and that he is not an adulterer. This means he did not forcefully take money and possessions from other people, he treated others fairly, and he did not sleep around with other women. Some might say, ?not a bad guy.? Jesus says implicitly that righteousness alone will not help you get into the Kingdom of God.

3.             Humility, it is to be humble and it comes from the Latin word ?humus? meaning ?soil? One who is humble does not think of himself higher than the ground that he/she walks on.  Humility is not self-debasement though. It is not what some term as ?low self-esteem.? Humility, I dare say, is not just service to others. The quotes I read just a minute ago, none of them mentioned God. And from the Orthodox Christian perspective, humility is born of God.  Humility is rooted and anchored in God. St. Mark the Ascetic says, ?Humility consists not in considering our own conscience, but in recognizing God?s grace and compassion.? Therefore, humility is not merely a state of lowliness.  Rather it is the absence of pride. The Publican could have easily prayed in the temple for God to make him like the Pharisee, someone who is respected and esteemed in the community. Or the Publican could have prayed, ?Thank you God, that I?m not like the Pharisee, who is haughty and proud, who thinks he knows everything.? No, for both of these prayers the tax collector would have been equally condemned.

4.             Kipling wrote once, ?The truly humble man is immune both to flattery and offense.? This is true, but again God is not mentioned. Mother Alexandra, of blessed memory says, ?When adversity strikes, we should meekly bow our heads in acceptance, without outward complaint or inward revolt.? She implies not that we accept because something happens, rather we accept in obedience to God?s will.  No doubt, she had in mind her own life. The youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, she was at one time, Princess Iliana of Romania. She was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Czar Alexander II of Russia. Obviously, she was a wealthy person destined for great power within her country. However, when the Communists gained power, she was exiled from her country and lost everything. She eventually came to the United States in 1952 and joined the monastic life.  Eventually, she became Abbess of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Elwood City, PA--a great beginning to a humble end, at least in our own eyes, not in God?s.

5.             Adversity without outward complaint is difficult. How often we grumble at the frustrations in our own life.  People at work, our money situation, our cars; all those things beyond our control can turn us upside down. Jesus encourages us to be humble. In the Sermon on the Mount, He says, ?Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.? (Mt. 5:5). Our meekness sometimes involves silent acceptance. However, we as Orthodox do not understand meekness as passive gentleness. Rather, meekness is strength under control. To be more specific, the meek are God-controlled. Our natural instincts may be to react violently, either by word or deed, in a situation which dishonors us.  We should consider God?s will and be silent and disciplined. Taking this further, although we may not say or do anything in adverse conditions, if we have inward revolt, if we have resentment, jealousy or anger, we are lost as well. Humility is not just an outward action but a state of the heart and soul.

6.             St. Makarios of Egypt relates a story that reveals the depth of this struggle against pride. He said once that his life was like an onion. He kept peeling off layers of skin each day. He called these layers: anger, envy, fear, anguish, anxiety, hate, lust, slothfulness, avarice, judgmentalism, over-indulgence--you name it. One by one these layers had to be shed before one could reach the innermost chamber of one?s heart. There, in the innermost chamber, one finds a crawling serpent nestled in comfort. The serpent?s name is self-love and self-pity. This serpent has invaded and wounded the soul?s most vital organ, the heart. The snake cannot be killed, says St. Makarios, it can only be controlled through ascesis, watchfulness, prayer and the Holy Spirit. Here, finally, is the key. As I said above, there is no humility without God, without the Holy Spirit. Humility, like faith, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As always, we must participate, synergistically--in cooperation with God, in this gift of Divine Grace.

7.             Ultimately, that is the reality of humility; that we can do nothing without God. It is easy for us to say, ?Look at the Pharisee, what an arrogant jerk.? But how can we do this when we have not even attained the righteousness of the Pharisee. Do we fast twice a week? Do we give a tenth of all our income to the Church? All we can do, all we should do is keep our eyes and our minds and our hearts and our souls focused on Jesus Christ. When we are profoundly aware of His presence, when we experience is purifying love we are moved to compunction, to repentance. Psalm 51 begins with, ?Have mercy on me O God,? and continues, ?according to Your steadfast love.? In verse 17 of the psalm it states that, ?The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.? Our sacrifice should always be based on extreme humility. When we do this, as the Publican did, all there is left to say is, ?God, be merciful to me the sinner.? Amen.