The Exaltation of Humility

Reflection on the readings for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time.

It’s amazing how quickly I identify myself with the crowds and disciples Jesus speaks to in this week’s gospel passage.  I oblige willingly as he admonishes them not to follow the example set by the Pharisees, who preach but do not practice.  I conjure up my latest donation to a program that feeds the terminally ill, or my last visit to an elderly friend in a nursing home.  Yes, I am not like the Pharisees.  Not only do I preach love of neighbor, I practice it as well.  Likewise, I do not do these things for the sake of being seen.  I don’t call attention to my good actions or “widen my phylacteries” as Jesus’ says of the Pharisees.  I certainly do not seek honor at banquets or in church.  Indeed, I am not like them.

Of course, the identification of myself as other than the Pharisees is, at least in part, rooted in the very problem Jesus alludes to in his counsel not to follow their example.  Based on Jesus’ description of them as seeking after seats of honor in banquets and synagogues, wanting open recognition of their status as teachers and interpreters of the law, and, in exercising that interpretation, their apparent lack of concern for the daily, ordinary context in which the law is practiced (“They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders”), one can reasonably conclude that the Pharisees thought themselves somehow better; that they thought themselves somehow more worthy of honor and recognition than the crowds.  This sense of worth also had something to do with their position in relation to the law, that is, to their relative privilege in that culture of being able to read, study, and debate, and therefore follow the Mosaic law in all its details.

Characterized as considering themselves better, worthy of more honor and recognition, and able to follow the law more purely than others, the purported difference between myself and the Pharisees collapses the minute I identify myself as different from them.  For what is this difference based on other than thinking that I am better than them in practicing what I preach, worthy of more honor and recognition from God because I am not like them, capable of following the gospel more purely than those hypocrites.

This, it seems to me, is the genius of this passage.  In holding up the purported self-righteousness of the Pharisees, Jesus is not so much asking us to differentiate ourselves from them as to recognize ourselves in and as them.  In fact, there is no “us” and “them” in this passage, but rather one example of the ways in which all human beings are tempted to glorify themselves by constructing an “other” against whom they measure themselves as superior.  The Pharisees just happen to serve as a convenient example to illustrate this basic human tendency.  Jesus uses this example to say, “Look, do you not recognize yourselves in this picture?”

This is why Jesus tells the crowds to avoid the example, to avoid being called “Master,” to remember that they are all related as family in God.  He must remind them of these things precisely because the crowd is no different than the Pharisees in their own desire for superiority; it just so happens that at this particular moment in time the Pharisees have the upper-hand.  Jesus is clearly aware of the propensity for the crowd and his disciples to do the same if given the chance, and thus reminds them: “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisees are not some group “out there” from whom we are called to be different.  Rather, Phariseeism resides in the human heart, waiting to be expressed in multiple ways, but always seeking to separate a superior “us” against an inferior and impure “them.”  As Jesus seeks to remind us, however: “you have but one master, the Christ.”