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Humility, Wisdom, and Moral Realism

The readings for Sunday, August 28th, 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 [https://commons.wikimedia.org]

Readings:
• 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 1188 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. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

12 Comments

  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

    https://acireland.ie/amoris-laetitia-the-joy-of-love-reviewed-by-aidan-hart/#comment-10034

    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.

    • Oh my brother:

      The lives that we lead, the mistakes that we make, the sins that we commit. Yet God knows we are only flesh and he takes pity on us by means of the shed blood of Jesus Christ the righteous. What a great and awesome God we serve.

      Ephesians 4:2 With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,

      Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

      Romans 12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

      Psalm 37:7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

      2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

      1 Timothy 1:16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

      Blessings as always,

      Brian

    • We may consider the sacrament of Baptism to be the necessary garment needed for entree to the King’s Eucharistic feast. The Church freely provides the sacraments without charge. The Church invites everyone while setting considerations and requirements for our maximal benefit and for the glory and honor of God.

      • Yes, Meiron “The wedding garment is sanctifying grace. C.f. Rite of Baptism”.
        And humility ensures we remain dressed in it.

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

  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.

  3. An elevated topic that challenges the best of us! A robust exhortation towards godliness.

    James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

    Proverbs 16:16 How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.

    James 4:6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

    Ephesians 4:2 With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,

    Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

    Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

    Acts 5:29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

    Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    In these times, we need to be laid spiritually bare before the Lord and our fellow man.

    Thank you.

    Thank you for this blessing.

  4. Luke Timothy Johnson? Why do you choose to mention he who denies The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament Of Holy Matrimony, in direct conflict of God’s intention for Marriage and the family, as someone to refer to in your post about humility?

    Only God Declares what is Good, and it is a lack of humility that leads one to believe that they know better than God what Holiness is.

    Please do not use someone who denies Christ’s teaching on The Sacrament Of Holy Matrimony and thus on sexual morality, as someone who can teach us about what humility, in essence, is.

    We cannot have the humility to be for Christ if we speak against The Word Of Perfect Life-affirming and Life-sustaining
    Love Incarnate.

  5. The author’s linking of the two virtues, humility and wisdom, is spot on. The necessity of linking the two brought to mind an old memory of a distracting incident that seemed at first nice and then sad. Many years ago, at Sunday Latin Mass, I recall two elderly gentlemen jostling for positions in the lines for Communion, each constantly moving to the back of his line and sometimes changing to the back of another line that seemed longer. Each seemed to be trying to “take the lowest place” and be the very last one to receive Communion.

    First thought: How nice that they each were following Jesus’ practical advice on living the virtue of humility.

    Second thought: Yes, in that sense nice. But in another sense, their choreographed actions seemed to suggest that each was trying to win the “humility contest.”

    Third thought: Something like a Zen koan came to mind. How does a person win a “humility contest”? Is the satisfaction of “winning” consistent with the virtue of humility? Is it, perhaps, more consistent with humility’s antithesis, the sin of pride? Can a “humility contest be “won” only by losing? In any case, wouldn’t pride be lurking in the background?

    Lesson: Holy humility is not an easy virtue to acquire. It must, as the author wisely points out, be joined with the virtue of holy wisdom.

    Recommendation: The best book on the very necessary virtue of holy humility is Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo’s “Humility of Heart” published by TAN Books.

    • The ushers may not have been competing in a humility contest. Traditionally ushers sat in the last pew so they could in order to have a good view of parishioners seated and/or help late arriving persons with finding a seat with minimal disruption to the seated congregation. Sitting in the last pew and standing last in line allows them to observe anyone in need of material assistance. Standing last in the Holy Communion line allows the usher to see whether persons in front are parishioners, are not in need of assistance, and are appropriately; these situations could cause difficulty for the priest or EEM at the administration and receipt of the Most Holy Sacrament. Is it possible the ushers you observed were acting on instructions from the priest? Rather than demonstrating humility, perhaps they acted with prudential wisdom…

  6. Jesus pulled His, “The Lord’s Prayer”, out of the, Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Books of Wisdom and Sirach; and Martin Luther and the Protestants pulled the Books of Wisdom and Sirach out of Jesus’ Bible. Go figure that the, uninspired by the Holy Spirit, Protestants, would do such an evil thing.

    When you buy a bible, be sure that the, Inspired by Jesus, Books of Sirach and Wisdom are in it.

    Matthew 6:9
    “This is how you are to pray: ‘Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name,…'”

    Sirach 51:10
    I called out: O LORD, you are my father, you are my champion and my savior; Do not abandon me in time of trouble, in the midst of storms and dangers. I will ever praise your name and be constant in my prayers to you.

    The Lord’s prayer continued.
    “‘…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'”

    Wisdom 6:17
    For the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her; then, care for discipline is love of her; love means the keeping of her laws; To observe her laws is the basis for incorruptibility; and incorruptibility makes one close to God; thus the desire for Wisdom leads up to a kingdom.

    The Lord’s prayer continued.
    “‘Give us today our daily bread,…'”

    Proverbs 30:8 (provide me only with the food I need;)

    The Lord’s prayer continued.
    “…and forgive us the wrong we have done as we forgive those who wrong us.”

    Matthew 6:14
    “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.”

    Sirach 28:1
    The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD? Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his sins? If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; of the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

    The Lord’s prayer continued.
    “‘Subject us not to trial but deliver us from the evil one.'”

    Wisdom 16:5
    For when the dire venom of beasts came upon them and they were dying from the bite of crooked serpents, your anger endured not to the end. But as a warning, for a short time they were terrorized, though they had a sign of salvation, to remind them of the precept of your law. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the savior of all. And by this also you convinced our foes that you are he who delivers from all evil. For the bites of locusts and of flies slew them, and no remedy was found to save their lives because they deserved to be punished by such means; But not even the fangs of poisonous reptiles overcame your sons, for your mercy brought the antidote to heal them. For as a reminder of your injunctions, they were stung, and swiftly they were saved, Lest they should fall into deep forgetfulness and become unresponsive to your beneficence. For indeed, neither herb nor application cured them, but your all-healing word, O Lord! For you have dominion over life and death; you lead down to the gates of the nether world, and lead back.

    Sirach 28:2
    You have saved me from death, and kept back my body from the pit, From the clutches of the nether world you have snatched my feet; you have delivered me, in your great mercy, From the scourge of the slanderous tongue, and from lips that went over to falsehood; From the snare of those who watched for my downfall, and from the power of those who sought my life; From many a danger you have saved me, from the flames that hemmed me in on every side; From the midst of unremitting fire, from the deep belly of the nether world; From deceiving lips and painters of lies, from the arrows of dishonest tongues. I was at the point of death, my soul was nearing the depths of the nether world; I turned every way, but there was no one to help me. I looked for one to sustain me, but could find no one. But then I remembered the mercies of the LORD, his kindness through ages past; For he saves those who take refuge in him, and rescues them from every evil. (SIR 23:1-6)

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