It seems that whenever John the Baptist comes up in our readings, I write about humility. I’m not saying that is bad, I’m just noticing a trend. Let’s not break a good tradition when John’s brief coverage in the New Testament is a wellspring of wisdom about humility.
This time around I want to draw our attention to the dialogue that happens between John and the priests and Levites who are sent from Jerusalem. In this exchange we see John’s confident humility. They ask him if he is the Christ, if he is Elijah, and if he is a prophet. All three times he admitted he was not those people. He knew his limits. He recognized, in a true sense of humility, who he wasn’t.
So far John’s humility reflects the meek and mild side of humility that we tend to restrict it to. We are likely familiar with the idea of a person whose head hangs low, shoulders hunch, and who is naysays himself in a quiet voice. Unlike that caricature, when John is pressed for who he is his true humility is confident.
Here is how John describes who he is: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” I see boldness in this response for a few reasons. First, he makes no reference to his father or mother, even though they would likely be known among the priests and Levites. Second, he does not hide behind a categorical title like prophet or judge. Third, instead he identifies himself as the fulfillment of a prophecy. This tells us a lot about humility in our own lives.
John shows us that humility begins with recognizing the limits that surround us, even if the only one we recognize at first is that we are not God. Hopefully there are more we can identify. From there we need to recognize that God has a purpose in our life and as we carry it out people should ask, “Who are you?” And when we answer that question we can remember the principles of John’s answer. First, we are not called because of the legacy of others, but because God has a plan for us. Second, God isn’t calling a roster and hoping to fill positions. Who we are is not based on titles alone. Rather, and third, who we are is based on the promises of the Lord, especially those found in scripture.
To close these couple thoughts on John and humility, I want to offer you a piece from Bl. Oscar Romero. Whether it is new to you or you are familiar with, I think he truly captures the healthy, confident humility of John the Baptist.
A Future Not Our Own : “It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” – Bl. Oscar Romero