Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The world needs Humility

Jesus washes the disciples feet

There is a tremendous lack of humility in the world today. At best, we are humble towards those who are perceived to have greater status in society than us, possibly also to those of equal status to us. However, towards those who have a lesser status, how often do we not show any humility towards them whatsoever?

 The gospel reading from Luke, for yesterday’s Mass, got me thinking.

When Jesus had come to the end of all he wanted the people to hear, he went into Capernaum. A centurion there had a servant, a favourite of his, who was sick and near death. Having heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him to ask him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus they pleaded earnestly with him. ‘He deserves this of you’ they said ‘because he is friendly towards our people; in fact, he is the one who built the synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them, and was not very far from the house when the centurion sent word to him by some friends: ‘Sir,’ he said ‘do not put yourself to trouble; because I am not worthy to have you under my roof; and for this same reason I did not presume to come to you myself; but give the word and let my servant be cured. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man: Go, and he goes; to another: Come here, and he comes; to my servant: Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard these words he was astonished at him and, turning round, said to the crowd following him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith like this.’ And when the messengers got back to the house they found the servant in perfect health.[1]

Society places a great deal of emphasis on wealth, education, title, clothing brands, general personal appearance, income and, of course, personal achievements, to mention just a few. I certainly have on many occasions been guilty of holding the mistaken belief that my status, determined by the things that I have just mentioned, should give me certain privileges and rights that others, with a “lesser” status, should not have.

How many of us have ever stopped to consider what an unjust society we live in because of this practice of treating people differently because of our flawed valuation of other people.

Don’t get me wrong I am not advocating socialism. I do believe that all people have the right to certain things in life because they have the means to achieve it, or because they have the means to acquire it, or because they have put in the necessary amount of extra effort in order to be awarded it. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a free ride. Therefore, as an example, it is perfectly acceptable that a person with a better qualification should have the right to be appointed in an employment position ahead of another person. It is also fair to pay one person more than another because of the level of responsibility that the person accepts. It is equally okay for a person, who can afford to pay the price of a first class airline ticket, to do so and not to have an expectation for the person to fly “cattle class” like the rest of us. I could mention many such examples.

Some things in life should however not be based on the worldly status of people. Here is a silly example that adequately makes my point:

Put on your oldest clothes. Those clothes you use for working around the house. (I was going to say your jeans with holes in it, but that is fashion today, so avoid those.) Spend the day working in them at home and get them filthy. Now, wearing these dirty old clothes and making sure you look like a tramp, drive to a Mercedes or BMW dealership. Park your car around the corner, so nobody sees you in a car. Then walk to the dealership and go looking at their new car section, particularly at their most expensive range of cars. Maybe even ask to test drive one. Then, repeat the exercise a few weeks later, this time dressed in your smartest clothes. Then compare your experience in these two different scenarios. I have done something slightly similar to this. When I pitched up well dressed and in my Mercedes Benz, I found the experience far more pleasant and helpful, than when I did not.

The above example demonstrates that people place a value on other people based on external factors. They clearly have it wrong in the above example. But this is in fact what many of us do most of the time, even if it is only subconsciously?

Notice how different this behaviour is to that of the centurion in the gospel reading. The centurion doesn’t send a message to Jesus to say, look, there is no need for you to enter under my roof because this is just a trivial matter regarding a servant of mine? No, the centurion said that he, the centurion, was not worthy. He does not say that his servant is not worthy! Consider also, did Jesus say to the Jewish elders who asked for help, listen it was actually the centurion who built the synagogue and not his servant. I will go if the centurion is sick, but not just for the servant.

This tendency to treat people differently because of their status manifests itself in many ways. Here is another example:

I was at the home of a friend. While I was there, it began to rain. Actually, it didn’t just rain. It came down in buckets and at some point it even hailed. A little later, the housekeeper finished her work for the day and left the house to go home. It was still pelting down with rain! I watched her leave in the rain with no offer whatsoever from him to take her to the taxi rank in his car, which was parked in the driveway. (I must confess that I also didn’t offer and so I am equally guilty in this regard.) Not even an offer of an umbrella to keep her dry for her walk to the taxi rank. In comparison, when it was my time to leave, he hurried to fetch me an umbrella to keep me dry from the rain, when all I had to do was walk a few metres to my car in his driveway.

Why do we treat people differently like this? Why will we do something for one person but we will not behave the same way towards another. It is not as though the housekeeper was some stranger who happened to be walking past the house. One can understand that there have to be limits to what we can do. Yet, in the example of the housekeeper, surely it would have been no trouble for me, or him, to quickly get into a car and drive the housekeeper to the taxi rank so that she didn’t get wet. If it had been my friend’s boss, who was leaving to walk to the taxi rank, that’s exactly what he would have done for him, even though the boss is not family or a friend. Why, well probably because his boss would be seen to have a higher status compared to the housekeeper.

The dictionary defines humility as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance”. If we all made an effort to constantly remind ourselves that we are of the same status or level as everyone else and that we are not more important than any other person, how much more effort would we make in our encounters with other people. Suddenly we may find ourselves greeting people we never did before. Smiling at people, like we would if we met a friend. Showing patience at the bad driving of another driver on the road, as if it was a family member driving badly. We may even become more aware of the needs of people we encounter each day, just like we would if it was our own child or spouse.

What a better place the world would be because of it!

[1] Luke 7: 1 – 10

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