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Humility, Wisdom, and Moral Realism

The readings for Sunday, September 1st, reveal how Jesus Christ, the model of humility, is the personification of wisdom.

Detail from "The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee" (1567-70) by Paolo Veronese []

• Sir. 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
• Psa. 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
• Heb. 12:18-19, 22-24a
• Lk. 14:1, 7-14

“Humility,” the Evangelical theologian James Houston once wrote, “is moral realism.” That simple definition stuck with me over the years because it points to the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the virtue of humility. Humility is rooted in the knowledge that some actions are right and good while others are wrong and evil. It also demands an unflinching assessment of who we are and, ultimately, who God is—and, finally, who we are in relationship to God.

Today’s first reading is from Sirach—also known by its Latin title, Ecclesiasticus—one of five works of Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. (Protestant Bibles don’t count Sirach or Wisdom among the canonical texts, but sometimes include them and five other “deutero-canonical” books in an appendix.) Fittingly, about 75% of the 400 references in the Old Testament to wisdom are found in the Wisdom literature, and humility is a trait often closely associated with those who are wise. For the Old Testament authors, wisdom referred to many interrelated abilities and virtues, ranging from the skill of a craftsman to cleverness to personal holiness.

Wisdom literature often drew upon elements of Greek philosophy and rhetoric while seeking to show that true wisdom flowed not from Athens, but from Jerusalem. This wisdom was not simply human understanding, but a knowledge of the living God who is the giver of wisdom, especially to those are humble in spirit: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

Jesus, the model of humility, is the personification of wisdom. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom…” Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “but to those who are called Jews and Greek alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23, 24).

Both the wisdom and humility of Jesus are revealed further in today’s Gospel reading. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there are numerous conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, the legal experts who interpreted and explained the Law for many of the Jewish people. Jesus had already argued with Pharisees while eating meals (Lk. 5:29; 7:36; 11:37) and had debated some of the Pharisees over the issue of what sort of activities were allowable on the Sabbath (Lk. 6:1). As Luke Timothy Johnson notes in his commentary, “If Jesus eats a meal with a Pharisee on the Sabbath, there surely will be conflict!”

The Evangelist masterfully captures the tension by noting that the other people at the meal “were observing [Jesus] carefully” and that Jesus, likewise, noticed the priorities and actions of those present. This was followed by Jesus’ remarks, which unfolded in two parts.

First, He provided a sort of practical exhortation on humility that was focused mostly on external actions: “Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place.” This was said to sophisticated Jewish leaders who had likely been influenced to a significant degree by Hellenistic culture, in which humility was considered a sign of weakness. So Jesus’ famous remark—“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”—would have been disquieting enough by itself, even though it was a reiteration of teachings found in the Wisdom literature (cf. Prov. 25:6-7).

But Jesus went deeper, past the external actions to the heart of the matter, which was not limited to temporal affairs but concerned eternity and the judgment of God. Do not invite your friends and family, Jesus exhorts the host, but “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” These were the unfortunate and lowly souls who were forbidden by the Law from the priesthood (Lev 21:17-21) and were—according to some of the stricter Jewish sects—thought to be unfit to participate in God’s great banquet at the end of time.

Just as He did in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was casting the light of eternity on the moral choices made in this world by teaching that without authentic humility we will not know or see God.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the September 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1170 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.


  1. St Mother Teresa “If you are humble nothing will touch you neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are”

    In the Gospel : Matthew 22:1-14
    God is like a king who invites us to a banquet. Many refused their invitation so his slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
    The anonymous guest, someone from “the main highways,” perhaps homeless, almost certainly destitute, where was such a one to come on a festive robe?

    If we transfer this statement onto the spiritual plane, it could be said the homeless and destitute are those who have lost their home (Church) and are ensnared in evil situations and need spiritual help now, in the present moment.

    I was about twelve years old when I first recollected hearing this parable, but could not understand how not having a wedding garment could result in such harsh dealings with the individual concerned, which caused me a great deal of distress and anxiety at the time, as I took the parable given by Jesus at face value, thinking possible he had no way of providing himself with one and so I could not understand this cruelty.

    About fifty years later I read somewhere on the internet, of the Jewish custom at the beginning of the first century AD, of the Father of the groom providing wedding garments free of charge for the invited guests, so I now realize that those who original heard this parable would have known instantly that the custom of the day was that the wedding garment was provided ‘free’ of charge, and had to be worn no matter how well one’s own apparel may be, dignitaries etc would conform to this custom as did those with poor apparel, not to do so would be an affront to the Bridegroom.
    This garment also created equality (Mutual respect) amongst the guest.

    I now believe that the name of this garment is humility; we can deduce this because we are told that one of the guests had no garment, to those hearing this parable they would have instantly concluded that he was arrogant, by refusing to wear the free customary garment of compliance offered to him.

    He wanted to be accepted on his own terms, as he was, in his own/self-image (ego). He was gagged, (his opinion no longer to contradict (offend) God, his stance so offensive that he was bound hand and foot and thrown into the darkness never to be able to repeat the same action again.

    This reflection has drawn me back to the original time when I first heard the parable, it appears that my pray and anxiety at the time, concerning the individual who had been thrown out, gaged, bond hand and foot, in to the darkness had now been answered, as I now understood the parable and also I had been given the means The True Image of Divine Mercy an image of Broken Man, to play my part to draw anyone who cannot take part in His Wedding Feast (Holy Communion) to come in from the darkness unfettered dressed in Humility and partake of His table.

    Please consider continuing this refection on humility (St. Bernard- Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself” see link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Another great article by Carl as usual 🙂 and Kevin’s reflection and added a new distinction to something I already or already knew vaguely. It really hit home when I reflected on the time we visited a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. They had little skirts for people to wear if they’re closing was too revealing. To refuse to wear one kept one outside.

  2. Good article. St. John Climacus: “Humility is the only virtue no demon can imitate”,… accurately, consistently and sacrificially, that is. No other virtue is as powerful, not even Charity, because without humility, Charity is stillborn. Humility is the True Door to the True God, His Love, Truth, Power and Light.

    Many can make great tear-jerking dissertations about it that move earth and sky, but living it day by day, especially in the very worst and very best moments, when no one but God watches, is the proof of humility. Humility is not being a push-around but being submissive to God and it destroys fear. Best prayer for humility I’ve ever found when prayed with total honesty and surrender: “God is God and I am not!!”, St. Catherine of Siena.

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