There is a story told about Paul Cezanne who ranks among the world’s greatest artists. He painted for thirty five years before receiving any recognition. When an art dealer finally discovered him and exhibited his paintings in Paris, Cezanne was overwhelmed. Entering the exhibition with his son, he could not believe what he saw. “Look!” he said to his son, “I can’t believe it! They’ve even framed my paintings!”
The theme of today’s gospel is GREATNESS IN HUMILITY. Humility is such a rare and weird virtue. Rare, because as John Selden, a British jurist and statesman, said: “Humility is a virtue all preach, none practise, and yet everybody is content to hear. The master thinks it good doctrine for his servant, the laity for the clergy, and the clergy for the laity.” Weird because as Louis Evely described it, “the moment we think we have it, we lost it.”
Humility is one of the main pillars of the Christian life. “If you ask me”, St. Augustine says, “what is the essential thing in the religion and discipline of Jesus Christ, I shall reply: first humility, second humility and third humility” (“Letter 118”). In a similar story, when St. Bernard was asked what the four cardinal virtues were, he replied: “Humility, humility, humility and humility.”
What is humility? What does it entail? Based on today’s gospel’s account, greatness in humility entails three things:
First, put yourself last. Who is the greatest in God’s kingdom? The one who is humble and lowly of heart— who instead of asserting their rights willingly empty themselves of pride and self-seeking glory by taking the lowly position of a servant or child. “If you ask me”, St. Augustine says, “what is the essential thing in the religion and discipline of Jesus Christ, I shall reply: first humility, second humility and third humility” (“Letter 118”).
Unlike the proud and the arrogant, a disciple should not “…think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment…” (Rom. 12:3). He must be prepared to take the last, least and lowest place. He must be ready and willing to become a servant of servants of all. It teaches us to prefer others over ourselves (Rom. 12:10). It is knowing our true position before God. It is not self-abasement or demeaning one’s self. “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 18:3-4).
Second, be the servant of all. Greatness consists in humble service. “If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). Jesus own teaching and example is a lesson for all of us. The humility of Jesus is described in Philippians 2:5-8, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (NIV). Christ whole life expresses his mission: “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. CCC 608). As Christian, we are bound to do same – to be a servant of servants of all.
Third, to receive the seemingly insignificant human being with great love. God takes special care of the weak and will punish those who harm them and reward those who take care of them. To receive, love and serve a little child is to receive, love and serve Christ himself and the One who sent him. “Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name receives me, and whosoever receives me, receives not me, but him that sent me” (Mk 26-37).
Receiving a little child in Jesus’ name includes the unselfish care and support given for the poor and the needy who cannot repay us of our hospitality and generosity. Receiving, serving and loving the poor and the needy is serving and loving Jesus himself, hence, deserving of heavenly reward. Blessed are you when you “fed the hungry Christ, gave drink to the thirsty Christ, received the homeless Christ, clothed the naked Christ and visited the sick and the imprisoned Christ” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) because you will inherit the kingdom prepared for you by my Father from the foundation of the world.
Humility is not only rare and weird, as I said earlier, but it is also difficult to conquer. As St. Francis de Sales said: “Pride – human pride dies 15 minutes after your own death.” History has shown us that person in power and authority is always tempted by pride, arrogance, honor, fame, wealth and corruption. Conscious of all these, St. Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 640, adopted a title which has been applied to all Peter’s successors, a relevant reminded of Jesus’ teaching. The title is: “servos servorom” which means “the servant of servants of God” or “the least of all servants.”
Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet shows us the way we should walk, if we are to be like him, if we desire to follow him, not only to the cross at Good Friday, but to the glory of Easter Sunday. Wish to be the greatest of all? Put yourself last, be the servant of all, and receive the least, last and the lowest of society!