A friend of mine has applied for a new job. Part of the application was a history of his life. He wrote it, but humbly didn’t emphasise his achievements; he didn’t want to be perceived as a poser. When he returned the application, the manager looked through the documents and instantly gave back the part referring to my friend’s life. He was asked to rewrite it, carefully describing his previous achievements. He was so surprised by that request that he asked me for an explanation.
I can understand his surprise. He had grown up in an old-fashioned Catholic tradition and he thought humility meant underrating himself. As a result he presented himself as a person less skilled and less talented than he really was.
When we listen to today’s gospel, we may suppose that was a very biblical way of thinking. We see two men in the Temple; one of them is telling God about his achievements, his good deeds and his perfect lifestyle. The second man (a tax collector, which simply means a sinner in the society of his day) is standing at the door with his head hung low, beating his breast and asking God for mercy. Jesus says that this second man, the tax collector was at rights with God. But such an apparently simple interpretation is misleading.
We have to look very carefully at this passage of the gospel and compare it with other parts of the New Testament. I’m sure we all remember perfectly another of Jesus’ parables; the one about three servants, who were given coins (called talents) by their master. Two of them multiplied the money and were then praised by the master. The third one buried the money and was criticised because of his negligence and laziness. Now let’s look carefully at the Pharisee in today’s gospel. He was well aware of his achievements; and that awareness was good. His problem was that his perfection made him haughty; this made him despise other people. Actually his virtue became his vice.
The proper meaning of humility is really simple. What does it mean to be a humble person? There are three necessary elements. The first one is an awareness of my particular skills, talents, experience and knowledge; it’s really important not to under- or over- rate them; it’s really important to give them due recognition. The second element is the need to develop my skills and talents. The third element is a readiness to use them in serving other people. So, if you want to be a humble person in the right way do these three things: get to know yourself, thank God for his gifts and use them to serve others with love.