Before I was a priest, I was a teacher in Catholic schools for 11 years. From time to time, my students would point out a mistake that I made while solving math problems at the board. Often at the beginning of the year, I would comment, “You’re right; I did make a mistake, but that will be the only one this year.”
Although intended as silly humor, a colleague helped me recognize my comment was sending the wrong message. By jokingly telling my students I would not make any more mistakes, I was suggesting mistakes were not part of the learning process or perhaps even not acceptable in my classroom. This certainly was not my approach to math, classroom management or even life in general. In fact, my philosophy was to encourage students to try their best and when they made mistakes in calculation, approach or method, they should allow this process of trial and error to lead them closer to the answer. Ever since that conversation with my colleague, I humbly said, “Yep, I made a mistake; it’s not the first and it won’t be the last.” My colleague provided me the opportunity to model humility so that I might inspire similar humility in my students both inside and outside the classroom.
On this 22nd Sunday of Ordinary time, both the Gospel of Luke and this week’s passage from Sirach remind us of the importance of humility in our daily living. Attending a Sabbath meal in the home of a Pharisee and noticing that the attendees were jockeying for positions of honor, Jesus tells a parable in which he encourages humility when choosing ones seat, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:1,7-14).
Sunday’s selection from Sirach begins, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility” (3:17). The virtue of humility encouraged by our Lord, by our Jewish ancestors and our Catholic tradition can be sometimes be misconstrued as weakness or dismissal of our own self-worth. However, genuine humility is about remaining grounded in who we truly are — both our brokenness and our blessedness. As we acknowledge at the beginning of Mass, humility does include asking for help and forgiveness for what we have done and what we have failed to do. However, humility also includes celebrating our blessedness, accepting what we can do and how we can contribute our gifts and talents for the benefit of those around us. Sometimes being humble means sharing our imperfections and allowing even our woundedness to be a gift to others. At other times, God works through our particular blessedness to draw others closer to his deep and abiding love. Be humble, be you and let God shine through!
Fr. Brennan, vocation director at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere, earned Master of Divinity and Theology degrees from Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.