There are four cardinal human virtues identified in the Catechism: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. There are also the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Interestingly, humility is not listed among these foundational virtues. And yet, it is the virtue that is considered the gateway to the spiritual life.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ teaching right after he had washed the feet of the disciples. This Gospel is a little challenging by itself because it gives the conclusion of that story without giving the story itself. So, we must read what precedes this passage to understand it.
Jesus has given them a model to follow. The word that we translate as “model” here is used elsewhere in the Bible (particularly in Maccabees) to mean “exemplary death.” At the very least, we can see Jesus’ model as being one of emptying self-gift. The washing of the feet is an example of this self-gift in that God the Son takes on the role of a servant for the good of the others.
Jesus’ model in washing the feet of the disciples, and indeed his entire offering of himself for our sake, is an act of love. But, as Philippians tells us, it also is an act of humility.
Unfortunately for us, a certain amount of self-promotion in the secular world is necessary for employment purposes. I have heard it called creating a “personal brand” that you market. Outside of that necessity, do we understand how to act out the virtue of humility? In leadership roles, do focus on enabling the success of those that we lead? Or are we only looking for some success that we can brag about to others? Do we mentor others? Or do we take sole credit for others’ work? Are we willing to admit our mistakes? Or do we cover for them by lying about them or by throwing someone else under the bus?
If we lack humility, how can we have the necessary relationship with God? If we believe that we are singularly responsible for our own successes, then we do not give ultimate credit to the first cause of those successes – to God. Do we become incapable of acknowledging that there is someone greater than ourselves to whom we owe our very existence? We must acknowledge our dependence on God to grow in our relationship with God.
The branches do not survive for very long apart from the vine.