The 17-year-old was working on a gang building a dirt road on the isolated hill country of Texas in the 1920s. The road was being built by hand, and the tall, gangly teenager was pushing a scoop, a plough-like instrument with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. It was back-breaking work, difficult even for older, stronger men. At lunch break each day, as the gang sat eating, the teenager would talk big to the older men. “He wanted to do something big with his life,” one of his workmates recalls. “And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I am going to be president of the United States one day,” he predicted.
They laughed at him, this poor son of a bankrupt from nowhere. It was the sort of idle boast many young people make, except this youth was deadly serious. And he began to work towards making that dream a reality – first as a school teacher, then a congressional aide, then a congressman, then a senator, then vice-president of the United States, and finally – on November 22, 1963 – president. Lyndon B. Johnson’s life-long ambition was fulfilled, albeit in the most tragic circumstances. His life story is a study in ambition, how to realise it, how to have a goal, a target, and to never let go of it until it happens.
Ambition takes many forms. It can be political, like LBJ. Or to be rich; or to succeed in business; or to be famous; or to play for Limerick or Munster or Ireland; or for Liverpool, if you’re smart as well as ambitious. We have our goal, our target, and, like LBJ, we work and work and work to make it happen.
But what about the Christian? What does ambition mean for the follower of Jesus? Christian ambition is the opposite of worldly ambition. It turns our usual understanding of ambition on its head; it’s an upside-down way of being. Being least, being last, being servant, being little, being humble.
Jesus was big into humility. Indeed, you could say it was his favourite virtue. Again and again in the gospels, Jesus chose the most humble. He chose the sick over the healthy…the weak over the powerful…the poor over the rich. He didn’t choose scholars and big shots as his apostles but fishermen and ordinary types. He practised humility. He washed feet, and mixed with outcasts and died with criminals. “I have given you an example,” he said, “that you also must follow.”
In today’s gospel, we see this again. The apostles are arguing over who is the greatest, when Jesus tells them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” And he puts before them the least significant person in the room: a small child—someone utterly dependenct. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me,” he said.
Humility is challenging. It’s hard to be humble, as the song says. What does it mean to be humble? Three qualities, at least.
First, to be humble is to be self-aware. It is to know we are not perfect, we are all pilgrims on the journey. No matter how hard we try, we come up short. Despite our best efforts, we sin all the time. It is the one thing we all have in common. Humility is being aware of our unworthiness, our shadow side. Humility is not having a big head. Humility means being without ego or conceit. How can we look down on another when we know we are not perfect ourselves?
We acknowledge our humility before Holy Communion at every Mass when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…” I am not worthy that you should come into my house. I am not worthy to be in your presence. I don’t deserve you. Humility is honest self-awareness.
Second, to be humble is to be selfless, other-centred rather than self-centred. It demands that we set aside our obsessions, our ambitions, our desires. It demands that we give ourselves for the other.
Humility washes feet. Humility loves without exception. Think of Matthew 25. At the last judgement, on what basis will God separate the saved from the lost? I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome, I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to see me. For as often as you did this to one of the least of these sisters or bothers of mine, you did it to me. Washing feet; loving till it hurts, loving even those who seem least significant, like the child in the gospel. Humility is selflessness.
Third, to be humble is to be prayerful. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said: “Only the humble can pray, for prayer presumes we need someone and something.” Prayer presumes humility. When we ask God for something, when we thank God for something, we are admitting our need for God, that we can’t live without God, that on our own we can do nothing. And so we turn to God in our need, our gratitude, our joy, our heartbreak. We place ourselves before the God who gives us life. That is what we do every time we pray. That’s why we must pray. Humility is prayerfulness.
Humility is self-awareness, selflessness, prayerfulness. As the catchy song reminds us, to be humble is far from easy.
Just how humble are you?