‘WHEN YOU’RE AS GREAT AS I AM, IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE!’ THE INTENT OF HUMILITY

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A revised précis of a sermon delivered at the Liberal Catholic Church of Saint Francis, Gordon, New South Wales, Australia, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, or Passion Sunday, on 29 March 2009 - Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2009 - All Rights Reserved.

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‘WHEN YOU’RE AS GREAT AS I AM, IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE!’ THE INTENT OF HUMILITY

  1. 1. ‘When You’re as Great as I am, It’s Hard to be Humble!’ The Intent of Humility Being a revised précis of a sermon delivered at the Liberal Catholic Church of Saint Francis, Gordon, New South Wales, Australia, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, or Passion Sunday, on 29 March 2009 By The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-JonesPassion Sunday (Dominica de Passione) was the name given to what wasotherwise the “Fifth Sunday in Lent” in the General Roman Catholic ChurchCalendar, up until 1960, when Pope John XXIII changed the official name to the“First Sunday in Passiontide. The Pope’s predecessor, Pope Pius XII, hadalready designated Palm Sunday as the “Second Sunday in Passiontide or PalmSunday”. In 1969 Pope Paul VI gave Palm Sunday the official full name of “PalmSunday of the Passion of the Lord”, thereby removing any distinction betweenwhat had previously been known as Passiontide and the general Lenten season.Liberal Catholics, along with some Anglicans (especially those in the “HighChurch”) and various other independent and autonomous Catholic churchescontinue to designate the Fifth Sunday in Lent as Passion Sunday in line with thepre-1960 Roman Calendar.The intent for Passion Sunday, in the Liberal Catholic Liturgy at least, is humility,and, as is so typical of our magnificent Liturgy, the Collect, Epistle and Gospel forthe day are ever so meticulously appropriate for the occasion.Now, when I was about 10 or 11, I received from my favourite aunt a birthdaycard which had on its front cover these words, “When you’re as great as I am, it’shard to be humble”. My parents were horrified at the wording on the card, andforbad me to display the card in my room or anywhere else in the house for thatmatter. (I never got rid of the card. I thought the wording was very clever, and I
  2. 2. 2still do. Perhaps that is where my interest in things esoteric began. Anyway, I stillhave the card in my possession, over 40 years later, but it is well and truly filedaway along with a whole lot of other miscellaneous letters and cards receivedover the years from well-wishers. What that says about me, I will leave to you todecide.)Our Gospel reading for Passion Sunday comes from Luke 18:9-17. It is that well-known parable of Jesus of two men praying, one a Pharisee and the other apublican. This particular Pharisee was an obsessed keeper of the letter of the lawto the Nth degree, and that included praying four times a day, fasting twice aweek, and tithing all that he possessed. His own idiosyncratic approach toreligion was a triumph of form over substance, with the result that people such asthe Pharisee in the parable were seen to have little or no time for so-called“ordinary” persons or “lesser mortals”.The misbelief – yes, misbelief – that all Pharisees were hypocrites and religiousnutters (hence the pejorative words “Pharisee” and “Pharisaical”) is a stereotype.Hyam Macoby, in his seminal book The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention ofChristianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1986) makes out a very convincing casethat not only was Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul) a Gentile right from thestart but that Jesus was a Pharisee. Macoby’s view about Jesus being aPharisee – and other eminent scholars have expressed a similar view on thematter over the years – would later receive strong, unqualified support from thevery scholarly and much-respected Rabbi Raymond Apple, then Senior Rabbi ofThe Great Synagogue, in Sydney NSW. (He was the Senior Rabbi of Sydney’sGreat Synagogue between 1972 and 2005.) In a letter to the editor of TheSydney Morning Herald, entitled “Unjustly maligned”, dated 8 November 1992,and published in the newspaper on 12 November 1992, on page 10, Rabbi Applewrote: Reputable scholarship is unanimous that the Pharisees were unjustly maligned by centuries of Christian stereotyping. They were a progressive religious
  3. 3. 3 movement dedicated to spiritual and ethical outreach. Far from being hypocrites, they taught love and concern for all God’s creatures. If Jesus’s teaching showed that of any Jewish sect of the time, it echoed the Pharisees.Be that as it may, the main problem with this particular Pharisee, as recorded inthe 18th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, was that he was totally self-satisfied andcomplacent. Instead of thanking God for the good that God had done for him andpresumably for his family as well, the Pharisee congratulated himself, anddeliberately compared himself favourably over others, smugly stating that he wasglad not to be like them, especially the publican standing across the temple court.The publican comes into a holy place and knows where he stands, namelybefore a holy God. He knows he is unworthy even to be there, and, to put itmildly, is acutely aware of the extent to which he has wandered from the pathwhich leads to righteousness. Indeed, he goes further, saying, “God be mercifulto me, a sinner.” He couldn’t even get himself to look up toward heaven (unlike,presumably, the Pharisee).You couldn’t get two more contrasting prayers, but we are told that it was thepublican who went away “justified”, that is, made right, and freed from the burdenand ongoing negative effects (karma, if you like) of his past acts and omissionsthat were “wrong” in one way or another.Now, back to our intent for Passion Sunday – namely “humility”. The Bible, aswell as all other Sacred Scriptures of the world’s religions, have much to say onthe need for humility. Jesus said that the person “that is greatest among you shallbe your servant” (Mt 23:11). Indeed, all Sacred Scripture teaches us that no onecan be great, in the spiritual sense, unless he or she is humble. Humility is notsubservience, or refusing to focus on our strengths and good points. In order toproperly understand humility one needs to focus, not on its synonyms, but on itsantonyms, such as pride, arrogance, haughtiness, presumptuousness, insolence,disdain, contempt, conceitedness, self-absorption, self-obsession, self-centredness, and so forth. The late Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American Baptist
  4. 4. 4minister who was the most enlightened and progressive man of his times in theChristian Church - the greatest Modernist of them all – wrote, “For the lack of[humility] the great empires of the world have fallen, and the dictators have lickedthe dust.”You see, humility is truth. That is the simplest, shortest and perhaps the bestdefinition of humility. Accordingly, humility must not result in a denial of one’sgood qualities, for being truthful involves a recognition of all of one’s qualities,that is, the good and the not-so-good.True humility involves more than just not thinking of ourselves more highly thanothers (cf the Pharisee in Luke 18). True humility involves three important things: • teachableness – not in the form of a preparedness to acquire more worldly knowledge, even concerning spiritual things, though that is not unimportant, but in the form of an honest recognition that there is still so much more for us to know and learn from regular communion with our Lord, whether in the form of the Holy Eucharist, or by means of prayer and meditation, and so forth; • penitence – not in the form of a morbid obsession with guilt (the “miserable sinner syndrome” manifesting itself in such grovelling as statements such as “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table ...”, cf the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), self- flagellation, but knowing when we have “stuffed up” and being prepared to make amends, change our course, and redouble our efforts in the future; and • graciousness combined with obedience – in the form of a daily letting go and surrender to the sovereign will of God (“Not my will, but thine, be done”).
  5. 5. 5Humility is not only a positive virtue and strength of character in its own right, it isthe root of all of the other virtues, for humility is the root of: • faith – in the form of a firm belief in the Power and Omnipresence of God and of the need to surrender one’s false self to the Eternal Self in whom we live and move and have our being; • love – for those who are truly humble are compassionate and loving toward all others, indeed toward all created things; • obedience – for those who are truly humble know that God is in charge, and have sacrificed their little, illusory selves on the cross, following the example of Jesus’ life of sacrificial self-giving (not just his death, but his entire life); and • purity – for those who are truly humble realize the need for Divine help, that is they know that, left entirely to their own devices, they are helpless, hopeless and powerless; they also know that all sin is rooted in selfishness, self-centredness and self-absorption; and that one should never be anxious to have either or both of the ultimately illusory satisfaction of being honoured by others and the supposed benefits and status that come from material fame and so-called worldly success.Here are some of my favourite Bible verses on the subject of humility: • “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30); • “Before honour is humility” (Prov 15:33); • “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk 14:11) (see also Mt 23:12, and Lk 18:14).I mentioned earlier that, not just the Bible, but also other Sacred Scriptures of theworld’s religions have much to say concerning the need for humility. Let me referto just one such Scripture, but there are innumerable others, for as Dr AnnieBesant pointed out in her helpful little booklet The Theosophic Life (Adyar,Chennai [Madras]: Theosophical Publishing House, 5th rpt, 1999), which was
  6. 6. 6originally published in The Theosophist in March 1909, there is something – callit the Ancient Wisdom, The Mystery Tradition, Gnosis, or whatever – which is“the wisdom underlying all religions when they are stripped of accretions andsuperstitions ... teachings [that] aid the unfoldment of the latent spiritual nature inthe human being, without dependence or fear” (p 60). Thus, it comes as nosurprise to read in Chapter 13 (verses 8-12) of the Sanskrit Hindu scripture TheBhagavad-Gita the following list of moral and spiritual virtues: Humility; pridelessness; nonviolence; tolerance; simplicity; approaching a bona fide spiritual master; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; renunciation of the objects of sense gratification; absence of false ego; the perception of the evil of birth, death, old age and disease; detachment; freedom from entanglement with children, wife, home and the rest; even-mindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; constant and unalloyed devotion to Me; aspiring to live in a solitary place; detachment from the general mass of people; accepting the importance of self-realization; and philosophical search for the Absolute Truth — all these I declare to be knowledge, and besides this whatever there may be is ignorance.Notice what is listed first ... humility ... the root of all of the other virtues. -oo0oo-

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