Opening the Word: The virtue of humility

“In this world,” Benjamin Franklin quipped, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Another certainty is the publication of books announcing the “real story” about the “real Jesus.” The most recent example is Reza Aslan’s best-selling “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, $27), which has gained attention, in part, because of the author’s Muslim background.

But the real problems with the book are its main thesis and its lack of solid scholarship. In short, Aslan takes up an old thesis: that Jesus was a political revolutionary whose goal was to remove the Romans from Palestine and then to set himself up as the real ruler of Israel. Far from being divine and peaceful in nature, Aslan’s Christ is merely human; the Christ of the Church is the creation of St. Paul.

In order to posit such nonsense, Aslan has to ignore nearly everything in the Gospels, to the point that he claims we know nearly nothing about the “real Jesus” other than he was a first-century Jew who led a popular movement and was crucified by the Romans for doing so. Many scholars have exposed the historical flaws in Aslan’s work. Of interest is how he insists that what was radical about Jesus was his goal of a kingdom attained, along with the extreme means he supposedly was willing to use to attain it.

Today’s readings focus on humility, and the Gospel shows that the kingdom preached by Jesus was not about political power, but the power of sacrifice and service. Jesus, seeing how the dinner guests at the home of a Pharisee were angling for positions of honor, chided them about their priorities and their pride. As an observant Jew, Jesus drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures. When he said, “Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to the higher position’” (Lk 14:10), he was most likely referring to this passage: “Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of superiors; For it is better to be told, ‘Come up closer!’ than to be humbled before the prince” (Prov 25:6-7).

If he had stopped there, we would have a nice story about social etiquette and virtue. But Jesus went further; his mission was to announce and reveal the Kingdom. He spoke of a wedding banquet, which was a joyful event taking place over many days. This banquet, however, is no ordinary banquet, for in the next section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus elaborated on who would be invited to dine in the kingdom of God (Lk 14:15-24). This banquet is not the victory feast of a military giant or political leader, but the gathering of the faithful into communion with God. It is the “festal gathering” in the heavenly Jerusalem of “countless angels” and “the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23).

Many people are familiar with Jesus’ statement, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is a difficult virtue, in part because pursuing it can so easily turn into an act of pride! Humility comes from acknowledging that we are fallen creatures in need of God’s mercy. It also comes by following the example of Christ. And it grows through submission to the molding of the Holy Spirit, who desires to bring us to full perfection in the divine life. That is a transforming truth we can know with certainty. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.