Humility: a graced strength, not a door mat

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“Humbly (πραΰτητι prautēti)
welcome (δέξασθε dexasthe) the word
that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only,
deluding yourselves.”

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

With the return to the continuous proclamation from the Gospel according to Mark this Sunday, another blessing befalls us in listening to the Word of God this Sunday: all three proclamations center on the authentic reception of the Lord’s Word and translating that reception into proper action. Deuteronomy records Moses’ instruction concerning the “statues and decrees” and how blessed Israel is to know exactly how to respond to the Lord’s providential care and blessings - especially the land promised (with all of its resources for life) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. James not only echoes the Commandments but hits the core of them by reminding his listeners of the imperative to care for the vulnerable among us in a proper way. In a similar way, Jesus’ instruction to the crowd addresses distortions that crept into living the Commandments and what exactly defiles a person in the eyes of His and our Father. While all three of these proclamations take up a similar lesson this Sunday, it is important to look at another dimension of ‘doing’ or acting on the Word: just how are the teachings of the Word to be lived? To gain some insight to this question, we turn to God’s Word from the Letter of James.

We are told this Sunday to “Humbly welcome …” πραΰτης (prautes), translated “humbly” in the Sacred Text, is generally understood as “mild,” “meek” or “gentle” in antiquity. It describes an attitude or demeanor regarding how one presents oneself to another. Actions that are πραΰτης are devoid of anger and harshness. As used in some ancient texts, πραΰτης describes how a person expresses himself or herself in speech: ‘soft’ enough so that one is able to listen simultaneously to the word of the other. More typical though, πραΰτης expresses a twofold action characterized by a balance between gentility in reception coupled with strength and conviction to accomplish that which has been received. In other words, πραΰτης is not about being “mild, meek or gentle” to the point of people walking all over you. πραΰτης is not suggesting that a person must become a doormat or never stand up to injustice or oppression; quite the opposite. πραΰτης (prautes) is a thoughtful, insightful acting that listens to the other and seeks the ‘big-picture’ avoiding a mindless (and heartless) rushing head-strong into a situation that imposes ‘my way.’ As far as the Letter of James is concerned, there is certainly a job that needs doing: “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world (the corporal and spiritual works of mercy).” Doing that work, as important and as necessary as it is, must be done in a certain way and this is where the older, less frequently translated meaning of πραΰτης (softly speaking so as to listen to the other) is helpful.

When Jesus chides the Pharisees for how they have observed religious practices, notice what Jesus says. The various practices in themselves are not bad or evil. At the hands of the Pharisees, Jesus has a problem with how the practices are accomplished. One can say that they are not being done in the sense of πραΰτης: there is no “mild, meek or gentle” receptivity on the part of the Pharisees. This is an attitude of ‘let’s get this done, let’s get this over with – let’s get this out of the way.’ The needed gentleness to listen to the voice of the Other, in this case the Lord Himself, is essential to prevent ‘religious works’ from becoming ‘corrupting’ or even ‘scandalous works.’ At all times, the disciple of Jesus must listen and be attentive to the Word of God not only to know what needs to be done, but how.