Cultivating the Virtue of Humility
May 17, 2016
Tuesday of the 7th Week in Ordinary Time
James 4:1-10; Mark 9:30-37
Martin Luther disparagingly called the Letter of James “the straw epistle” because what he perceived to be its emphasis on good works and ethical conduct over the saving grace of God. But for something supposedly made of straw, it can still deliver a strong moral punch even centuries after it was written.
The author of this letter was a realist and a sharp observer and critic of when the gospel was preached but not lived. In today’s passage, for example, he excoriates the community for its conflicts and worldliness. Like Jesus in our gospel reading, James invites us to embrace and cultivate the virtue of humility—that is, being grounded in who we really are, with all of our goodness and talents as well as our sins and weaknesses—by first submitting ourselves to God.
The cultivation of this virtue demands that we reflect on who we are in relationship with God and others. Jesus urges his disciples to be ready to welcome children, who in his time and culture were considered little more than property or a source of present and future labor in the household. While that is still true in some parts of the world today, in many places children are now understood to have their own personhood and rights that we are bound to respect.
We are a better society for this revolution of rights for children; but not every aspect has necessarily been good or healthy. If “becoming like little children” means we should feel entitled to recognition or a participation trophy lest our self-esteem be harmed by the real-world experiences of winning and losing, perhaps there are other ways we should consider: a daily examination of conscience (people in recovery refer to it as a 10th Step moral inventory), regular sacramental confession, profound honesty with those who counsel and provide spiritual direction for us, kneeling (if we’re able) in prayer, manual work, and contemplating the incarnation, passion and death of Jesus, along with his becoming really and truly present to us in the form of bread in the Eucharist.
In a world that covets silver and gold, humility challenges us to consider the parts of ourselves that are more like straw. Sometimes, however, straw can be as strong as steel. That’s the grace of God at work.—JC