On the Sunday just past, Zacchaeus taught us about desire for Christ and overcoming everything about our fallen human nature that keeps us from seeing Him. And his personal strength of unrestrained desire, which was previously misdirected toward greed and power, is now focused in the proper direction, on the “one thing needful,” on the true source of all: Christ.
This Sunday, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we are taught that what must follow our desire to see and know Christ is the action of discovering and practicing His humility: “Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). This lesson precedes the following Sunday’s lesson on repentance, for without humility, there is no true repentance or complete forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are not ‘withheld’ from us due to some sort of lack of ‘performance’ in the area of humility. This idea is based on a misconception of who and what God is. Humility, understood correctly, is in the condition, the context, the soil, the state of heart, and the attitude of the soul that allows for the action of true repentance and the reception of complete forgiveness. The pursuit of humility is, in the end, simply the pursuit of true humanity or, better yet, perfect humanity, which is just another way to say “Christ-likeness” or “imitate Me.”
In the second chapter of Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann describes our concept of humility bluntly:
If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the One who all the time ‘gives credit’ for man’s achievements and good deeds. Humility—be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national—is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming of real man. Even our churches—are they not imbued with that same spirit of the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every ‘good deed,’ all that we do ‘for the Church’ to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?
But what is humility? The answer to this question may seem a paradoxical one for it is rooted in a strange affirmation: God Himself is humble! Yet to anyone who knows God, who contemplates Him in His creation and in His saving acts, it is evident that humility is truly a divine quality, the very content and the radiance of that glory which, as we sing during the Divine Liturgy, fills heaven and earth.
It is a fearful thing to contemplate the pursuit of humility. It’s not popular, our friends won’t support it, our enemies will exploit it, and the world will call us fools. The pursuit of humility will not gain us riches, fame, or power. But when we wake up in our souls and remember that eternal life is on the line, that we are in a time of mercy but Judgment is on the horizon, that the only thing that stands between us and immortality and divine life is authentic repentance (“for You have appointed repentance for salvation”), and that humility is the state of being that enables true repentance, then we become motivated. And in our smallest efforts to enter into humble existence, to “learn from Him,” we are met by grace and filled with love. Every trouble around us we see as passing, and in every person around us we see an image of Him.