Jesus’ profound example of humility

By: By Father Douglas Grandon

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 28

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-5,8-9,10,14; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

“Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves; each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” Philippians 2:3-4

Never before in human history have so many inconsequential men and women been paraded before us with such mind-numbing regularity as with today’s media darlings from the world of television, movies, and sports. The amount of glitz, faux-glamour, vanity, and undeserved self-importance is staggering, at least to those possessing normal sensibilities.

Even more offensive than the Hollywood crowd are Christians who exude selfish ambition and vain conceit. In this week’s second reading, St. Paul admonishes us to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory” and explains why such sinful attitudes are so inconsistent with the profound example left us by Jesus Christ.

One word encapsulates Paul’s entire point of view: humility. “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,” he writes. (The Revised Standard Version translation reads, “In humility count others better than yourselves.”)

Humility is a uniquely Christian virtue. To Greeks and Romans, humility represented either false modesty (“I know I’m better than most, but I must pretend that I am not”) or abject servility, a way to draw attention to oneself that one could better attract in more appropriate fashion.

True Christian humility results from a proper estimation of oneself. It is the realization that each of us stands as a needy creature in trusting relationship with his Creator. As one commentator put it, a humble person “is well aware both of one’s weaknesses and one’s glory (we are in his image after all), but makes neither too much nor too little of either.”

Selfishness and conceit are so inconsistent with the Christian lifestyle, especially because Jesus so perfectly modeled precisely the opposite. Paul advised, “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”

Having introduced Jesus as the example of humility par excellence, Paul then takes us on a brief, but amazing journey from eternity past into the present and on to eternity future.

In eternity past, Jesus “was in the form of God,” that is, he was the character, quality, and essence of divinity. However, Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped,” something to which he should cling at all cost, something to further his own ends.

So, in order to enter into the present world of time, Jesus “emptied himself.” In what way? By “coming in human likeness” (“taking the form of a servant” RSV), by being “found human in appearance” (“being born in the likeness of men” RSV). For one who was himself God and who never stopped being God, Jesus’ first and unimaginable act of humility was to voluntarily take on the vocation of suffering human servant.

Having adopted the essential qualities of manhood, Jesus further humbled himself by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As we ponder Jesus’ awesome humility, we understand that God is not an imploding black hole of divine selfishness, but an infinitely generous doer of good, willing to give even himself for the sake of others.

During his life among men, Jesus demonstrated that he was equal to God in the expression of his capacity for generous self-sacrifice. As a consequence, God “greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”

Jews had long considered God’s name (Yahweh) to be sacrosanct and replaced it with Lord in their reading of Scripture. Paul tells us that God the Father has so highly exalted God the Son (who bore the earthly name of Jesus) that Jesus now shares in the divine name.

It was the Lord himself who declared in Isaiah 45:23, “By myself I have sworn . . . ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.'” Paul informs us that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” St. Paul has given us nothing less than a glimpse into eternity future!

In light of the majesty of this lofty and deeply significant passage, we could easily miss Paul’s reason for including it here: Jesus is the ultimate model of the self-sacrificing love to which Paul is calling the Philippian believers.

We might paraphrase Paul’s original admonition as follows: “Within your community learn to develop attitudes of selflessness and humility, considering one another’s needs as top priority.” How attractive our Catholic faith would be if a sizeable number in each parish community would commit themselves to this uniquely Christian philosophy of life.

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline and assistant director of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria.

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