August 25, 2013
Father George Smiga
Tom Brokaw, who for years was the anchor on The NBC Nightly News, began his television career in a small station in Omaha, Nebraska. From there he went on to serve in Los Angeles and Washington, but his big break was when he was promoted to be the co-chair of The Today Show in New York City. From that time forward, his face had national coverage. It was plastered on billboards throughout the city. Brokaw became accustomed to people recognizing him on the street, coming up to congratulate him, and asking for his autograph.
His favorite story about this begins one day when he was browsing through Bloomingdale’s. He saw in the corner of his eye that a man was watching him. Brokaw knew the routine, and sure enough in a few minutes the man came forward, pointing his finger and saying, “Tom Brokaw. You’re Tom Brokaw, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” said Brokaw.
“And you used to do the morning news on WKTV in Omaha, Nebraska.”
“Yes, I did,” said Brokaw, waiting for the congratulations that were soon to come.
“I knew it!” said the man, “I recognized you as soon as I saw you.” Then he paused and said, “Whatever happened to you?”
We would say that in this story Tom Brokaw was humbled. His view of himself and his fame was knocked down to size. It is this “knocking down to size” that we might first think of when we hear Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: “The first will become last.” What Jesus is saying could indicate that when we are overly proud of our success, abilities, or talents, we can be prepared to be knocked down to size.
Now to understand Jesus’ words this way is certainly valid, but it is not complete. Jesus not only says that the first will become last, he also says that the last will become first. He does not only say that the exalted will be humbled, but also that the humbled will be exalted. So instead of spending our time today discussing the various ways that our pretensions need to be knocked down, it might be more profitable for us to ask, “What do we need to do in order to be built up?” To answer that question, we have to understand what Jesus means when he talks about being last and being humbled.
Humbling ourselves does not mean that we negate our value or that we disdain our abilities and talents. Humbling ourselves means that we accept the truth of who we are. Accepting that truth is always a balance. On one hand we are people of tremendous worth. We are made in the image of God. We have been saved by the blood of Christ. We have talents and abilities that we can use to serve others and build God’s kingdom. Through our baptism, we share in the very life of God. On the other hand, we are imperfect people. We are sometimes selfish and demanding. We want to have our own way, and we have fits when we do not get it. We make bad decisions and refuse to learn from them.
Living in the truth of who we are means that we must accept that we are both valuable and flawed, both holy and sinful, both generous and weak. It is only by accepting all of this that we find humility. It is only by accepting all that we are that we come to see what it means to live in the truth about ourselves. If knowing that truth means that we take the last place, that is exactly where Christ wants us to be.
So the next time you are introduced to someone, don’t fall over yourself trying to mention all of your accomplishments. What is really important will in time emerge. When your friend or your spouse surpasses you in some ability or achievement, don’t waste your time making excuses. Simply admit that he or she might have a talent that you do not possess. When you mess things up, don’t get angry with yourself. Apologize for the mistake and move on, owning your weakness but at the same time claiming your value as a person.
It is living in the truth of this balance that we achieve humility. Living humbly is living honestly. If living this way gains us the last place in the minds of some people, so be it. Because when we live our lives in the truth of who we are, we rise to the first place in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God.