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‘The human race has nothing to boast about to God’

“In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people, and those who are left in Israel will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.”

The words of the prophet Zephaniah were addressed to a people caught up in the turmoil of crumbling empires and approaching catastrophe. Israel’s strong faith had languished. It no longer provided its sure foundation for the life and conduct of the people. Opportunism, arrogance and a selfish disregard for the poor ruled the day as Israel headed for inevitable disaster.

In the midst of the approaching chaos Zephaniah began to speak of the approaching Day of the Lord, a reminder that none of our conduct is private. All that we are, all that we do, is subject to the scrutiny of the Lord. It was for this reason that Zephaniah placed such emphasis on humility. The humble do not live life for themselves. Their lives are lived in the presence of God. They alone have a proper sense of what it is to sin, to repent and know God’s healing grace. They, the humble of the earth, seek the Lord with integrity. They do no wrong, tell no lies. The humble are the fulfilment of Zephaniah’s promised salvation: “In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people.”

Each and every generation struggles with the pride that Zephaniah condemned. Pride and humility are not superficial accidents of character. Pride is a fundamental denial of the truth. It places self-interest at the centre of its reality. God is no more than an adjunct to the world it arranges around itself. Humility rejoices in itself as a gift of God’s grace, dependent upon him for life and love.

At the beginning of his letter to the Corinthians Paul faced the petty divisions that can so easily undermine a community and destroy the presence of Christ in its midst. Without explicitly naming humility, he gently invited these early Christians to reflect that it was grace, rather than pride, that had brought them to salvation.

“Take yourselves at the time when you were called. How many of you were wise, how many were influential or came from noble families. The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you, God has made members of Christ Jesus. He has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and our freedom.”

The humility underlying Paul’s thought is not an undignified self-abasement. Paul’s humility rescues us from the precarious pedestal that pride builds for itself. Humility, acknowledging its sinfulness, rejoices in itself as a creation of God’s grace.

At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus presented the Beatitudes as a programme for life. Humility lies at the heart of each Beatitude. Only the truly humble, while acknowledging their own poverty, can entrust themselves to the kingdom of God. Only the humble, those who look beyond themselves, can mourn the tragedy of sin themselves and others. Only the humble, whose repentance has brought them to mercy, can show mercy. Without humility there are no peacemakers, only the competition of pride. Only with the humility that is forgetful of self do we begin to hunger and thirst for what is right.

Humility is at the heart of all that we become in Christ. As the Son of God he did not cling to his equality with God. He won the hearts of many precisely because he was gentle and humble of heart.