Humility is an underrated commodity in our society. Politics, business, entertainment, the academy, and even the church—they seem to thrive on self-promotion. Our Facebook posts and Instagram pictures put on grand display our invariably glamorous lives. Our Twitter behavior (posting, sharing, retweeting, and liking) is typically antithetical to true communication; it enhances our ratings and advances our social standing.
Social media provide the most glaring examples. But loss of humility is visible wherever we turn—from grade school student portfolios, to relentless organizational branding, to braggadocio at the highest levels of politics. Self-promotion seems to have nestled securely in the innermost structures of our life together.
Humility is a key virtue, according to Christian tradition. The Rule of Saint Benedict famously mentions the angels descending and ascending on Jacob’s ladder, and explains allegorically, “Doubtless, we should understand this descent and ascent as follows: one descends by pride and ascends by humility.” For Benedict, it is not pride but humility that takes us to the top. He speaks of the “pinnacle of humility,” and he describes in some detail the twelve rungs of humility that we need to climb in order to arrive at the perfect love of God that drives out fear.
Saint Thomas Aquinas classifies humility as a virtue of temperance, describing it as a “praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place.” Humility, according to the Angelic Doctor, moderates our appetite, restraining it from “aiming at great things against right reason.” Humility is a necessary virtue, Aquinas explains, because it removes the obstacle to our spiritual well-being, namely, “striving to become great in earthly things.” By moderating and eradicating earthly self-aggrandizement, we reach our spiritual aim.
In sharp contrast to society’s values, Benedict claims that humility takes us to the top, and Aquinas maintains that moderation allows us to reach our ultimate goal.
Jesus, it seems, is with Benedict and Aquinas. He insists that “little children” accept divine revelation, while it remains hidden from the “wise and understanding” (Matt.11:25).
Why is it that pride debases while humility exalts? Jesus grounds the claim by pointing to himself—first his exalted life within the Triune God and then his self-abasement in the Incarnation. “All things,” he says, “have been handed over (paredothē) to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” (11:27). Most of the Christian tradition has seen in these words a reference to the eternal generation of the Son. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, explains that Jesus’s words show that “the same essence of both Father and Son existed in their knowledge of each other. One who could know the Son would also know the Father in his Son, because everything was handed down to him from the Father.” So, for Hilary, when the Father eternally “hands over” everything to the Son, he hands over nothing less than his own essence. Father and Son know each other perfectly because of the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son.
Next, Jesus reflects upon his own humility and self-abasement in the Incarnation. The eternal Wisdom of the Father takes on human flesh. Indeed, the whole passage (11:25–30) centers on the interrelationship between wisdom and humility. Jesus, as eternal Wisdom of God in the flesh, reveals the Father to little children (11:25, 27). In his own person, Jesus reveals the Father to us. As Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6).
The eternal Wisdom of God was under no constraint to show humility; his humility—“gentle, and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29)—is a self-offering of sheer grace, entirely for our sake. To become wise, we need to be discipled, learn, and obey; in short, we need to humble ourselves. Wisdom, for us, comes through humility. The eternal Wisdom of God—of the same essence as the Father, as Hilary maintained—does not need to learn. The Son always was wise, always is wise, through his eternal relationship with the Father. He is Wisdom itself. Whatever he does, he does for us.
The liturgy links Matthew’s passage to the prophet Zechariah: “Behold, your king is coming to you . . . humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). The one who always already is eternal Wisdom itself, the one person who has absolutely no need for humility, humbles himself by riding into the city on a donkey and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). Wisdom and humility are both there in the king riding a donkey into Jerusalem.
Jesus insists that his humility should be ours: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). Jesus wants us to learn his humility so that we may gain his wisdom. If Wisdom-in-Person humbles himself on a donkey, we should take that same yoke and humble ourselves.
Jesus’s invitation to learn from his humility is not new. To stoop down is in God’s character. From the outset, the biblical narrative describes God giving his eternal Wisdom to his people. A quick detour to Ecclesiasticus 6 and 51 illustrates the point. There, Jesus ben Sirach encourages us to accept Wisdom: “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Put your shoulder under her and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul” (Sir. 6:23–26). “Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. See with your eyes that I have labored little and found myself much rest” (51:26–27). The invitation to come, the notion of instruction, the references to a yoke and a burden that are easy, as well as the promise of rest—all are present already in Ecclesiasticus. Jesus is making the claim that he is Wisdom incarnate, and that we may share in his wisdom.
To share in Christ’s wisdom is to adopt his humility. It’s a sensible approach, for it takes us to the top of the ladder: Jesus promises rest for our souls (Matt. 11:28–29). The rest of which he speaks is a place in the eternal knowledge shared between Father and Son.
Our cultural addiction to self-promotion is antithetical to the gospel. All pretension, self-importance, vanity, and swagger stand under Jesus’s condemnation. Our practices need to return to the teaching of Benedict and Aquinas. It is by riding the donkey that we enter the New Jerusalem. It is by forgoing self-promotion that we receive divine promotion.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.
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