Humility and Humiliation
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter preaches on our dignity and humility.
Albert Nolan tells us in God in South Africa about a young black man who could not bear to say the words in the Mass, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you …’ He had been told all his life, he said, by the the white rulers of his country, that he was not worthy and he would not accept the same humiliation in church.
It is often said of Christianity and especially of the Catholic Church that it instills an unhealthy sense of guilt in people. In a culture which sees believing in yourself as an important virtue, the excessive humility of Catholics is seen as something bad, self-destructive, and, let’s face it, it can be.
But is it the Church that is to blame? Maybe the foundational documents of Christianity, our Scriptures themselves, are full of the idea that human beings are worthless. In the Gospel today, the word the English translations politely render as ‘servant’ undoubtedly means someone who could expect no pay – the man in the parable is a slave. The master sees no reason to thank the slave since he is a possession and exists only to serve his master.
If that is the whole story of the relationship of humanity to God, perhaps Nietzsche was right to want to get rid of God in the name of human freedom. If God is to be seen as the master and we as his slaves, belief in God doesn’t look very attractive. In particular, it becomes hard to see how God could love human beings, for a master cannot love his slaves, at least as long as he sees them as slaves. Only when a master sees a slave as a human being, someone with whom he has some equality, can there be any kind of love between them, for love requires equality. But what kind of equality can there be between God and humanity?
The answer is that, naturally speaking, there can be none at all. We are not even the greatest of God’s creatures – that place is occupied by the angels – and there can be no question, it might seem, of creatures having any kind of equality with their Creator. When it comes to God and the possible, however, things are almost never how they first seem to us. As Jesus says, ‘What is impossible for humans is possible for God.’
The really extraordinary thing which Christians teach is that God does indeed love human beings. He shows this and has shown this in so many ways. This is shown even in our very origins: humans have the dignity of being made in the image of God.
But of course he especially showed his love for us by becoming one of us. While we were still enemies of God, the Father sent his only-begotten Son, he came among us as a human being and died for us. In what clearer way could the dignity of humanity be shown? This love of God is made possible by an act of unimaginable generosity. Though creature cannot be equal to Creator, and though through our sin we have made ourselves even less worthy that God should come to us, through Christ’s death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit we are not just healed but lifted up to God’s level, made god-like, people who can be loved by God and love in return.
Humility and humiliation, then, are two quite different things. The young man mentioned at the beginning was responding to being humiliated by (understandably) mistaking an act of humility as further humiliation. Real humility is not about considering ourselves to be so much rubbish, but about recognising the good in ourselves and then realising it comes from God. Our lives are valuable but we receive them from God and consequently owe everything we have and are back to God: that’s what our slavery amounts to.
But the amazing thing is that through the gift of God, when we recognise our debt and accept our slavery, it becomes possible to become children of God. That’s where the most radical freedom of all is to be found.