Friday, May 27, 2011


When I was about 10 or 11, I received from my favourite aunt a birthday card which had on its front cover these words, “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble”. (I see that Muhammad Ali is reported to have once uttered those words. Sounds right.)

My parents were horrified at the wording on the card, and almost forbad me to display the card in my room or anywhere else in the house for that matter. However, I never got rid of the card. I thought the wording was very clever, and I still do. Indeed, I still have the card in my possession, some 45 years later, but it is well and truly filed away along with a whole lot of other miscellaneous letters and cards received over the years from well-wishers. What that says about me, I will leave to you to decide.

One of my favourite Bible passages is Luke 18:9-17. It is that well-known Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. There are two men praying, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (or, in some versions of the Bible, a publican). Now, this particular Pharisee was an obsessed keeper of the letter of the law to the nth degree, and that included praying four times a day, fasting twice a week, and tithing all that he possessed. His own idiosyncratic approach to religion was a triumph of form over substance, with the result that people such as the 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 religious nutters (hence the pejorative words “Pharisee” and “Pharisaical”) is a stereotype. Hyam Macoby, in his seminal book The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, makes out a very convincing case that not only was Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul) a Gentile right from the start but that Jesus was a Pharisee.

Macoby’s view about Jesus being a Pharisee –  and other eminent scholars have expressed a similar view on the matter over the years – would later receive strong, unqualified support from the very scholarly and much-respected Rabbi Raymond Apple, then Senior Rabbi of The Great Synagogue, in Sydney NSW. (He was the Senior Rabbi of Sydney’s Great Synagogue [see pictures below] between 1972 and 2005.) In a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, entitled “Unjustly maligned”, dated 8 November 1992, and published in the newspaper on 12 November 1992, on p 10, Rabbi Apple wrote:

Reputable scholarship is unanimous that the Pharisees were unjustly maligned by centuries of Christian stereotyping. They were a progressive religious 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 in Luke 18, was that he was totally self-satisfied and complacent. Instead of thanking his God for the good that God had done for him and presumably for his family as well, the Pharisee congratulated himself, and deliberately compared himself favourably over others, smugly stating that he was glad not to be like them, especially the tax collector standing across the temple court. The tax collector comes into a holy place and knows where he stands, namely before a holy God. He knows he is unworthy even to be there, and, to put it mildly, is acutely aware of the extent to which he has wandered from the path which leads to righteousness. Indeed, he goes further, saying, “God be merciful to 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 the tax collector who went away “justified”, that is, made right, and freed from the burden and ongoing negative effects (karma, if you like) of his past acts and omissions that were “wrong” in one way or another.

The Bible, as well as all other sacred scriptures of the world’s religions, have much to say on the need for humility. Jesus said that “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Mt 23:11, NRSV). Indeed, all sacred scripture teaches us that no one can be great, in the spiritual sense, unless they are humble.

Humility is not subservience, or refusing to focus on our strengths and good points. In order to properly understand humility one needs to focus, not on its synonyms, but on its antonyms, such as pride, arrogance, haughtiness, presumptuousness, insolence, disdain, contempt, conceitedness, self-absorption, self-obsession, self-centredness, and so forth.

Humility, says Krishnamurti, is 'not meekness ... [nor] a low estimation of one's own importance ... [nor] a state of acquiescence, acceptance ... [nor] humbleness ... [but] an energetic state of mind when it is totally aware of itself, of all its intracies, its limitations, its conditioning, its prejudices, its shortcomings'. As such, humility is not a virtue; it cannot be cultivated - 'it is there, or it is not there'. Humility is self-knowledge ... warts and all!

Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American Baptist minister who was the most enlightened and progressive man of his times in the Christian 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 licked the dust.”

You see, humility is truth. That is the simplest, shortest and perhaps the best definition of humility. Accordingly, humility must not result in a denial of one’s good 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 than others (cf the Pharisee in Luke 18). True humility involves, among other 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 life. In addition, humility involves a daily letting go and surrender of all that would hold us back. As I see it, karma ceases when we learn the particular lesson which we have thus far failed to learn, and then we can move on. It's a choice – a very empowering idea. You know, it feels pretty good when you stop banging your head against a brick wall.

I mentioned earlier that, not just the Bible, but also other sacred scriptures of the world’s religions have much to say concerning the need for humility. Thus, it comes as no surprise to read in Chapter 13 (verses 8-12) of the Sanskrit Hindu scripture The Bhagavad-Gita the following list of moral and spiritual virtues:

Humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, simplicity, approaching a bona fide spiritual master, cleanliness, steadiness and 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; nonattachment to children, wife, home and the rest, and even-mindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; constant and unalloyed devotion to Me, resorting to solitary places, detachment from the general mass of people; accepting the importance of self-realization, and philosophical search for the Absolute Truth--all these I thus declare to be knowledge, and what is contrary to these is ignorance.

Notice what is listed first ... humility ... the root of all of the other virtues.

Those who regularly practice mindfulness generally find that humility, along with many of the other moral and spiritual virtues listed above, unfold over time. This is not surprising, for the one “thing” mindfulness does give us is the insight that there is only one life in which all things live, move and have their being, and it is in the very livingness of that one life that we become aware that we are all brothers and sisters. That is, or at least ought to be, a very sobering and humbling thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment