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Humility vs. Fame

John the Baptist (right) with the Christ Child, in The Holy Children with a Shell by Bartolome Esteban Murillo


Isaiah 11.1-10, Matthew 3:1-12 


I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly (High!) I feel it coming together, people will see me and cry (Fame!) I'm gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame (Fame!) I'm gonna live forever, baby, remember my name!"  

This is the chorus of the song, Fame, in the 80’s motion picture (1980) and TV series (1982-1987). Fame is the stories of the students and faculty of the New York City high school for the performing arts. Hard to believe 40 years elapsed.

Sadly, Irene Cara, famous for this signature song Fame, passed away about a week ago at age 63. Fame is not free. Success doesn’t come without pain. But, those who pursue fame are willing to pay whatever it costs. Borrowing the words of Lord Byron, fame is the thirst of youth.

For most of us, as we are getting old, our thirst of youth will be diminishing. Fame is like a flame that is dangerous, if you can’t contain it well. Fame also dies quickly like a candle in front of a strong wind or with no more combustion of flame when a candle wick is used up.

The desire for fame is a uniquely human trait, and it is addictive. The more we have, the more we want. But, there are heroes with no fame. Parents sacrifice for their children, trying to provide very best things for them. Teachers try to instill their knowledge and wisdom to their pupils as much as possible. Health care professionals are empathetic to the concerns of their patients. We remember their characters, not their fame.  

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks, a political and cultural commentator, quoted one study:  middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came first; Jesus Christ came in second. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant, for example Justin Bieber’s, than president of Harvard. Brooks jokingly added that president of Harvard would also rather become Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.

What matters is a character, more than a fame. Brooks argues that a strong character is developed through embracing the qualities of humility and self-discipline. Self-centered individuals with a focus on exterior factors become divorced from humanity.

He also suggests that the road map to building character is in the willingness to engage in the struggle between our virtues and vices towards the goal of living a moral life, and to toss pride by the wayside. He emphasizes “the moral quality of knowing what [we] don’t know and figuring out a way to handle [our] ignorance, uncertainty, and limitations.”

Such knowing about our not-knowing calls for embodied humility, which redirects our lives to become more grateful to the affection and the attention of others that they give to us.

God, all-knowing and almighty, is within each of us to transcend our culture of narcissism, self-aggrandizement, pride and prejudice, and a selfie culture. When we look deep inside, we will meet God who is waiting to speak to us.

We don’t need to pursue fame or to seek someone’s recognition for what we do to be authentic because we are already important people to God as the Scripture reminds us.

Through Prophet Isaiah, God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these might forget, yet I will not forget you. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa 49:15-16a).

Indeed, we are carried by him in his hands. And, the way God comes to us is something extraordinary. Our Old Testament lesson today sketches the humble character of the Messiah by touching on his ancestry this way:

The shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots – Isa 11.1

Jesse is King David’s father. Here, instead of pointing to a glorious Davidic dynasty, the name of David’s father, Jesse, is used, which is the much less famous. The royal authority of the house of David was dormant for 600 years.

Even if they looked like a long dead stump, glorious restoration under the Messiah was promised. And, God wanted Judah to know that even though the Assyria and others would come and bring judgment, he would bring forth life from them, small shoot sprouts from the root of this dry stump, the Davidic dynasty.

It’s a human nature to emphasize personal achievements and backgrounds – “the resume character,” high degrees from prominent academic institutes or family members holding prestigious social positions, which has nothing to do with our relationship with God, nothing to do with our personal salvation.

Many people rely on outward appearance or on the words that others say. But, sometimes words of others hurt you. Worldly fame and gossips bring you down. The Kingdoms of David and Solomon were all gone. But, peace of the Lord is still there to lift you up when you feel down.

God’s focus is always on you. This doesn’t mean that your difficult circumstances change easily or overnight in your favour, but it means he is walking alongside you always.

God transcends the narcissism of selfie culture into a realization of what matters is not fame but his love towards our humanity.

God doesn’t take selfies because he is not self-preoccupied, but his selfie, in a way, is this created world. Then, we should be able to see his image in the face of a person who gives you a smile, in the sunrise and sunset, and even in the picture of universe captured by a telescope.

And, when the Messiah reigns, nature will be transformed; not only will the way animals relate to each other be changed, but the way they relate to humans will be changed. A little child will be safe and able to lead a wolf or a leopard or a young lion or a bear, even the danger of predators like cobras and vipers will be gone (Isa 11.6-9). This is the Peaceful Kingdom Isaiah prophesied.

When Christ was born, there was nothing royal about the Davidic dynasty, but only a new shoot springing from the old stem that looked too dry to bear fruit.

For God, everything is possible.

And, here comes John the Baptist, born to the old couple Zechariah and Elizabeth, along with a call to be the forerunner of the Messiah (cf. Lk 1). John, clothed with camel’s hair and having an austere diet, had a stern ministry, fearlessly calling people to repentance. This is a bizarre image, anything but fame. He was not motivated by the popularism but by the Spirit of God.

Repentance was the first word of John the Baptist’s gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3.2), and Jesus also said the same (Mt 4.17).

Repent is not a feeling word but an action word. This prophesied forerunner of the Messiah told his listeners to prepare hearts for the Messiah, not merely to feel sorry for what they had done but to make a change of the mind.

Repentance speaks of a change of direction, not a sorrow in the heart. This repentance is not just about talking but about all believers bringing forth the fruits of holiness in accordance of God’s Word, humbling themselves before God in reverence and submission, with trust and honour, just as Jesus humbled himself before his Father.

Although he was a cousin to Jesus, John himself also embodied humility before the Messiah, saying, “I’m not worthy to carry his sandals” (Mt 3.11). And he warns us to stop trusting in our heritage and relying on our ancestors’ merits: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’” (Mt 3.9).

Humility is the virtue that restrains the mind from thinking one is greater than one truly is before God. Humility is an essential disposition to accept our dependence upon God in our lives.

Let us kneel before God, the Most High, and prepare our hearts with the light of Messiah, ready to receive him with humility and gratefulness, reflecting our readings, prayers, hymns, and the Good News.