Our readings today highlight two important virtues: humility and poverty. But even if they are important in our spiritual life, they are certainly unpopular in the world. They are an affront to modern culture’s relentless self-promotion and craving for material possessions. Reflecting on today’s readings, then, can teach us many counter-cultural lessons on these two important virtues.

The word humility has its roots in the Latin word humus or “soil.” Soil is lowly, mere dirt, but it is the ground where life grows. Beneath every fruitful wheat field or orchard or vineyard lies ordinary soil. The Gospel ends with a statement that humility is the ground from which the glory of exaltation springs: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The specific example Jesus gives is that of a tax collector who takes the lowest place in the temple area: “The tax collector stood off at a distance.” He is clearly someone on the periphery. His profession, collecting taxes from his fellow Jews for the Roman conquerors, makes him an enemy of his own people, and therefore a social outcast. The Jerusalem temple during Jesus’ time was divided into sections that progressively separated the profane from the holy. The furthest away were the Gentiles, then Jewish women and children, Jewish men, and finally, in the holiest section, the priests and the high priest. Standing “off at a distance” shows that the tax collector considers himself to be profane, unfit for temple worship.

The humble man’s prayer reveals his view of himself, which he bares before God: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” With this beautiful, simple prayer, Jesus hints at the relationship between the virtue of humility and contrition. Humility makes it possible for us to express our sorrow for sin. One of the verses of Psalm 51, popularly known as the Miserere, declares: “A contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.” The tax collector’s contrite, humbled heart is sure to receive God’s mercy – and it is in God’s mercy that we can find sure hope for our exaltation.

The virtue of humility is not a matter of putting ourselves down, but much more of raising God and others before us. St. Paul, in the second reading, shows his humility in his spirit of selfless service. To be “poured out like a libation” is to be offered as a sacrifice. Paul writes this as he nears the end of his life. After years of tireless missionary effort, battered by constant persecution, he is confident of his future glory: “the crown of righteousness awaits me.” This does not sound humble to us at all because we wrongly equate humility with sounding self-deprecating. But here the seasoned Apostle is not boasting about himself but about God. He is simply stating that God is faithful and is sure to reward those who rely on him and pour themselves out in his service.

Today’s first reading teaches us about the virtue of poverty, which is as baffling to contemporary secular culture as humility is. Sirach declares that while God is just and “knows no favorites,” he is especially attentive to the poor – the weak, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. From a secular perspective, these people are helpless and in dire need. They hardly fit our idea of the sort of favor God should show to his chosen ones. But the upside-down values of God’s Kingdom hold up the poor – known in the Bible as the anawim – as those who are the most blessed because they rely totally on God. They show us that the proper response to being chosen by God is to entrust our whole selves to him, just like the anawim. When we do not trust God fully, we fall back on reliance on ourselves and our abilities, which, like anything human, are severely limited – always a miserable alternative.

The practice of the virtue of poverty allows us to let go of our illusion of control and to be totally dependent on God. It does not mean that we do not act or make decisions. In fact, a life of virtue entails repeated decisive and persevering action. By the virtue of poverty we pray with confidence – “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds” – and we acknowledge that all our best efforts are made fruitful only by God’s grace.

Another aspect of the virtue of poverty is detachment. Our earthly life is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. We are meant for eternity. Everything that we accumulate while passing through this world will be left behind. Yet, we can be tempted to dedicate our whole lives to what is temporary. Instead of becoming servants of the Lord, we become slaves of the world. We all need the virtue of poverty to help us grow in detachment, so that we can put transient material things and worldly wealth in proper perspective.

Both these difficult virtues come with a promise. For humility, Jesus promises exaltation. For poverty, the Lord promises intimacy and everlasting presence: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” These virtues also come with a long list of saintly witnesses, foremost of whom is our Blessed Mother. In her Magnificat, Mary proclaims that God “has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” When God chose her to be his mother, she was an insignificant teenager, humble and poor – in the eyes of the world, a nobody. Yet her humility and poverty of spirit made her fully available to God’s will, which she embraced with her whole heart. Mary proclaims the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom: “He 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.” We find joy and peace, then, in being counted among the lowly and the hungry. We can proclaim with St. Paul: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen!”

Do I picture myself as the tax collector or the Pharisee? What am I doing to cultivate the virtues of humility and poverty in my life? What are the worldly attachments that stunt my spiritual growth?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.