Rethinking Lowliness

The readings today bring together a common theme of Christian Scripture and later writings: God favors the lowly. In the reading from 2 Samuel, we see that God does not seem to mind dwelling in a tent, and questions the idea that David should build him a more luxurious home. In the Gospel, we hear of the Annunciation, which is the announcement of the Incarnation, where God came to dwell in humanity, in the form of a poor carpenter, son of a poor woman. This theme of God favoring and dwelling in lowliness is echoed in many other places. The Psalms tell us the Lord hears the cry of the poor. The prophets condemn Israel for ignoring the poor. O Holy Night speaks of the king of kings lying in a lowly manger, and Mary’s Magnificat praises the God who looks favorably on the lowliness of her servant. Many other examples could be found.

This was a point likely made in many homilies today. It was part of the homily at my parish. I do not seek to repeat here generalizations about God and whom he favors. Instead, I would like to think about a different question. I would like to reflect on why God favors the lowly, because I feel it is often misunderstood.

God does not favor the lowly because they are lowly. He does not favor the poor because they are poor. Rather, God has an entirely different way of judging people than we do. There are a variety of reasons that the world might put a low value on someone. Perhaps they belong to an oppressed race. Perhaps they are poor. Perhaps they are disabled. Perhaps they are not strong or handsome. There are many people that the world does not value as human beings. In our more honest moments, we must acknowledge that we sometimes do this as well. It no doubt brings great comfort, both to the oppressed and those that, no not themselves oppressed sympathize with them, to think that God is on their side. But this is not because God likes lowliness, but because in his eyes they are not lowly at all.

Some might say that this is a matter of semantics, an unimportant distinction. I do not believe this is the case.

First, we should no doubt try and make the way that we judge people align as closely as we can to the way God judge’s people. What He values, we too should value. What he does not value, we should not value. If we think of God siding with “the lowly,” however, I fear that this will continue to be the way that we think of them: lowly. We may think of them as favored by God, but in calling them this we will still see them as lowly. This is in fact the very thing that God does not want us to do. He wants us to realize that all the aforementioned characteristics that the world does not value do not make someone lowly. He wants us to realize there are far more important things. God does not favor the lowly. He favors those that corrupt man sees as lowly.

We are not called to stand with the oppressed out of compassion or pity. We are called as Christians to reorient our values and the framework in which we judge people to be aligned with what God values. We are not to judge others based on their appearance. We are not to judge them based on how much money they have. We are not to judge them based on their sexual orientation or gender. We are not to judge them based on what they can do for us, or how much power they have. Rather, we are called to look at human beings as having intrinsic worth. They are created in the image and likeness of God.

We should look favorably on those who trust in the Lord, and on those who work to bring about his kingdom on earth. This is why it is said so often in Scripture and other Christian writings that God is on the side of the poor and lowly. Those who live with little are more apt to realize their dependence on God than those who can fool themselves into thinking they are self-sufficient. Those who live on the margins of society are more likely to hope for the rapid coming of God’s kingdom. Those who are oppressed suffer a violation of justice, and a God who loves justice will stand with them against those who have been unjust.

I wish to say briefly as well that we should not let the fact that the poor and oppressed are not lowly in the eyes of God obscure the fact that they do suffer injustice. They are oppressed, and refusing to call them lowly and affirming their value in the eyes of God is not a substitute for working to improve their conditions in the here and now. Unjust oppression is contrary to the will of God, and should be recognized and fought.

Let us pray we learn to view the oppressed not as lowly, but as children of God.