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Pride is a prison; humility brings freedom

Christ at Simon the Pharisee, by Peter Paul Rubens (1618-20)

“My son, be gentle in carrying out your business, and you will be better loved than a lavish giver. The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord.”

The Book of Ecclesiasticus originated as a wide-ranging manual for the instruction of young men preparing for positions of responsibility in Israel’s civil and religious life. It could almost be described as a handbook for aspiring civil servants. Unlike its modern equivalents, it was more concerned with attitudes of spirit rather than the details of procedure. For this reason that the Book of Ecclesiasticus placed great emphasis on humility as the guarantor of communion both with God and those entrusted to us. The text argues that the greater we are, the more we are called to the humility that finds favour with the Lord. Ultimately the Book of Ecclesiasticus understood life, wisdom and prosperity as the blessings of God. What we are, what we become and what we achieve is no less the gift of God.

From such a perspective humility was more than deference; it was the joyful acknowledgment of God’s graciousness and our continuing dependence upon his love. The pride that centred the universe around itself was dismissed as a malady beyond cure, an evil growth rooted within the heart. In our own lives pride can take many forms. It might be the touchiness that does not want to be confronted, the corroding envy that cannot rejoice in others, the self-importance that must always be acknowledged. Only humility opens the heart both to God and to our brothers and sisters. Humility opens our lives to the graciousness of God. Pride closes the door to everything but itself. It was for this reason that Ecclesiasticus described it as a malady without cure.

St Paul described Jesus as perfect humility. “He did not cling to his equality with God, but humbled himself, accepting death on the cross.” For Jesus, as it must be for us, humility was the attentiveness that waited on the Father, that claimed nothing for itself. “Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name.”

Throughout his ministry Jesus emphasised that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, that the one who humbles himself will be exalted. These words, so alien to a self-confident world, are a description of reality. The pride that exalts itself is blinded with the illusion of self-importance. Jesus illustrated this point from the behaviour of guests invited to the table of a leading Pharisee. He noticed that the guests were preoccupied with the places of honour. The banquet had ceased to be a celebration of hospitality. Instead, it had become a showcase for competing vanities. In response, Jesus set before his disciples the humility that surrenders the judgment of our worth to the Lord alone. “When you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place, so that, when your host comes, he may say: ‘My friend, move higher.’ In that way everyone with you at table will see you honoured.”

Let us pray for the humility that frees us from the burden of self-importance, that rejoices to have been chosen and called by God. Pride clings to passing achievement. Humility entrusts itself to God’s enduring love. The anxiety of the guests at the wedding feast, that they might lose their places of honour, is the prison that pride imposes. Trusting humility brings freedom and peace of heart.