We are in a ripe season of egos these days with political candidates pushing to sit at the head table in government and the Oval Office. Selling themselves is understandable. If they don’t believe in themselves who should? But the arrogance of ego likes to notch its belt with the casualties of rivals. The fray ends up affecting us all if we pay any attention to the news media. It’s like watching an athletic game with opposing teams shouting for victory. Perhaps the loudest one wins. Certainly in this presidential race the facts for many don’t make much difference. The goal is to capture the emotions of people, in particular their anger and frustration, and to let the rush of discontent sweep the candidate to victory. A soft, gentle, and generous attitude towards citizens is easily overlooked. Shouting matches are not won with hospitality. Yet, New Testament readings invite us to do the opposite of what we witness in the political
arena. We’re encouraged to show hospitality and to be humble.
Ryan Holiday in his fine new book, “Ego is the Enemy,” writes that while “history books are filled with tales of obsessive visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force,” he notes that “history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.” He defines ego as commonly refer to as “an unhealthy belief in our own importance; arrogance and self-centered ambition.” “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”
Jesus recognized this unhealthy sense of self-importance and invited his hearers to pursue a humble approach with others. Instead of striving to sit at the head table, “take the lowest place.” He warned that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He wasn’t fooled by the voice of the ego that tells us that we are better than we really are. And he didn’t suggest that in our business and social life that we surround ourselves with people who will advance our careers or self-centered ambitions. The alternative is in giving a
banquet to invite those in need rather than those who can repay with some benefit to enhance our self-importance. Jesus’ message was to think of others first and their welfare rather than using the gift of life for one’s own self-aggrandizement. (Luke 14:1, 7-14)
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews also encourages us “to show hospitality to strangers,” to “remember those who are in prison,” and not to “neglect to do good and to share what [we] have.” This is a tall order, but we are challenged to welcome others with radical hospitality. (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)
What often hinders the spirit of generosity and hospitality is an ego that constantly needs to be fed. Self-help manuals guide us to build our self-esteem. And there is nothing wrong with a realistic understanding of our talents and abilities. The danger comes when our self-absorption limits our emotional investment only to ourselves. We tend to enter a fantasy world and honor our talents and strengths with arrogance. In the spiritual life this approach stunts personal growth. We are meant to have proper respect for ourselves as gifts of God’s creation, but we are also meant to use our talents and strengths for the welfare of others. Jesus was not
commending the selfish life. Narcissism is not our goal. Jesus encouraged humility, realistic self-awareness, and generosity.
Richard Rohr, the great Franciscan spiritual teacher and author prays for one humiliation each day. He knows himself well and that his work is not about him but about the love of God. He doesn’t want to get in the way of that message, the message of Jesus, God’s message. Humiliation teaches him humility. A daily embarrassment can teach that the Spirit we experience with the Eternal and within each other is not interested in puffed up egos that block loving relationships. We’re not to hate ourselves, but we shouldn’t be hoarders of self at the expense of others. Endless self-promotion jeopardizes the emptiness that we are meant to achieve, in order to be filled with the spirit of God’s love.
Healthy introspection can lead to healthy living. We’re here for each other. God is our companion in patience, kindness, hospitality, generosity, gentleness, and love.