Column: Does humility reap its own rewards?

by Father Mike Stubbs

How is luck portioned out?

If you haven’t won at the slot machine yet, does that mean that you have a better chance of winning the next time you play? Does luck tend to even out? That is what some people think. (Incidentally, the laws of probability tell us otherwise. Your chances of winning are exactly the same each time you play the slots, provided that they are not rigged.)

This belief in luck evening itself out reflects a desire for balance in life. It is only fair that people should enjoy good fortune and bad fortune in equal amounts. Why should the same person be lucky all the time?

That is the idea that lies behind the scriptural theme of reversal of fortunes. It claims that God will even out the fortunes we have been given so far.

That theme figures prominently in Luke’s Gospel. It finds its classic expression in the Magnificat, which we just heard recently as part of the Gospel reading for the solemnity of the Assumption: “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:52-53).

The reversal of fortunes also appears in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 14:1, 7-14: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We can view this statement by Jesus in a couple of different ways. First of all, we can look at it as primarily a statement of personal morality. Through it, Jesus is encouraging humility as part of the search for spiritual perfection. After all, humility involves a personal decision. It helps us grow in holiness. In that way, humility will exalt the person who practices it.

On the other hand, we can interpret Jesus’ statement about humility as primarily a statement about God’s justice.

It means that God will humble those who exalt themselves, and God will exalt those who humble themselves. God will reverse the fortunes we have received so far.

We should notice that Jesus’ statement about humility does not mention the word “God.” Instead, the statement uses the passive voice, in order to avoid the name of God, out of respect for God’s name. That use of the passive voice is called “the divine passive.” Viewed that way, Jesus’ statement places the emphasis upon God’s action, rather than our own.

So which is it? Is Jesus’ statement primarily a teaching on personal morality, or is it a statement on God’s justice? Or must we choose? Could it be both?

Perhaps Jesus’ statement links personal morality to the action of God. When we humble ourselves, we anticipate what God will do. We align ourselves to God’s way of doing things. It’s not a matter of luck. Rather, it’s God’s justice at work.

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