Morris the loudmouth mechanic was removing the cylinder heads from the motor of a car when he spotted the famous heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who was standing off to the side, waiting for the service manager to come take a look at his Mercedes.
Morris shouted across the garage, “Hey DeBakey! Is dat you? Come on ova’ here a minute.”
The famous surgeon, a bit surprised, walked over to where Morris the mechanic was working on the car. Morris straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag and asked argumentatively, “So Mr. Fancy Doctor, look at dis here work. I also open hearts, take valves out, grind ’em, put in new parts, and when I finish dis baby will purr like a kitten. So how come you get da big bucks, when you an’ me is doing basically da same work?”
Dr. DeBakey leaned over and whispered to Morris the loudmouth mechanic, “Try doing it with the engine running.”
There is nothing wrong with having a good self-esteem. It gives us confidence to go out into the world. To meet new people and make friends. Without it we become overly self-critical about things that really mean very little. We withdraw into ourselves and fail to engage the world around us. However, with too great a self-esteem, we find ourselves in a place of pride. Sure, we have the confidence to go out into the world, but we soon begin to think that world revolves around us and that the good that is in us is of our own doing.
St. Thérèse of Avila recalled a fable by the French poet, La Fontaine. The fable told of a donkey who was carrying the relics of a saint in a procession. He looked at the people along the way who were bowed in reverence for the relics on his back. After a while the donkey thought the people were showing reverence to him, and he became very proud. St. Thérèse said she would be like that donkey, if she ever took any credit for any good that appeared in her life.
The same is true for us. We who are made in the image of God walk through this world and if ware not careful, we begin to think that the world is about us. In our pride we can begin to think, “If folks are paying reverence to me, then they darn well should be!” It is then that we start acting like that jacka.. donkey in the fable. We think that it is about us, but instead it is about the image of God that is within us. It is humility that teaches us this, for as St. Thérèse also said, “humility is truth” – the truth about ourselves. How does that work?
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell this story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”
Humility is truth. It is the truth about ourselves and who we are in relation to the True Good that is within us – God. In our gospel reading today, Jesus had some very hard things to say and there is no avoiding it, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” They will be divided. This isn’t the Jesus we always imagine in some pastoral scene surrounded by adoring followers and talking about love. This is the Jesus that comes to sift us like wheat. To refine us like gold.
Our own divisions, denominational, political affiliation, race, even gender are petty – nonexistent – compared to the division that Jesus will accomplish on the last day. Again speaking on division, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’…. Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” I’m not a “Hellfire and Brimstone” kind of preacher and I don’t have to be when Jesus speaks like that. The Lord will divide us. Not based on our standards, but on His – those who are blessed and those who are cursed. The dividing line comes in knowing the truth.
What is the truth? The truth is Jesus. The truth is that we are totally dependent on God for our lives and for our salvation. How do we come to this truth?
There is a story told about a spiritual seeker who asked his beloved rabbi why it was that people were not allowed to see the face of God. “From the time of Moses until today God’s face has been kept from us. What happened that keeps us from reaching high enough to see the Lord?”
The rabbi, who was very old, had experienced the fullness of life and said tenderly, “My child, reaching higher is not the way at all. We cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low.”
To reach the truth about ourselves and about God, we must be willing to stoop down, to humble ourselves and recognize that the good that is within us is not of ourselves. The good within us is of God. St. Thérèse said that she can fall into the same trap as the donkey if she started taking credit for the good in her life. If I take a good long hard look at myself I know that the good within me is most certainly from God, because deep down inside, I am a donkey. But I also know that within me is something very good – something holy – that has been touched.. created.. made in the very image of God and is loved by God. That good – that holy – is within us all.
Humility is the truth about who we really are and by recognizing that fact about ourselves, we begin to understand God’s grace. A grace that is freely given, not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are. And, taken one step further, humility helps us to view others differently as well, for in understanding ourselves and God’s grace toward us, we begin to see how others are just as needing and deserving of that grace as we are. As C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters points out, God “wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.” Glorious and excellent creatures, not because of who they are, but because of who God is.
Humility is truth about ourselves and about God. In understanding this we may just find ourselves on the “right” side when Jesus comes to divide.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, when You walked the earth, Your humility obscured Your Kingship. Your meekness confused the arrogant, hindering them from grasping Your purpose, Your nobleness attending to the destitute. Teach us to model after Your eminence, to subject our human nature to humility. Grant us a with a natural inclination to never view ourselves greater than anyone. Banish all lingering sparks of self-importance that could elevate us greater than You. Let our hearts always imitate Your humility! Amen