Today’s readings give us an opportunity to reflect on humility – what it is, what Jesus reveals about it, and how we can live by it. Genuine humility is an interior disposition, but it can at times be manifested exteriorly in our demeanor and actions. The true measure of our humility can be known only by God, who knows our hearts and minds. For our part, the key to humility is deliberately rejecting our nature’s demand that we be exalted. Jesus sums up this principle very clearly: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The wise author of the Old Testament Book of Sirach understands the value of humility and notes that it is the way to “find favor with God.” He realizes that humility is more challenging, and therefore more important, for the high and mighty of this world. They are more easily tempted to the sin of pride. So he counsels: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are.” Here Sirach is thinking of the humility of man. Without realizing it, however, he also gives us a profound insight into the humility of God. God, the greatest one of all, has humbled himself the most. He emptied himself of his divine glory and became a man like us. He “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, practiced such humility, we can be sure that the same principle applies to us who strive to follow in his footsteps. St. Paul, in the same passage where he proclaims Jesus’ great humility, teaches us that in our relationships with one another, we should have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a leading Pharisee. Reflecting on this passage in this week’s Spiritual Reflection, Pope Francis calls our attention to the two sets of people whom Jesus addresses: those who have been invited and those who invite. First, to those who have been invited, Jesus says, “when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’” Pope Francis points out what an embarrassment it would be to sit at a place of honor only to be asked to move to make room for another. He goes on to say, “we should not seek the attention and regard of others on our own initiative…. We must learn the way of humility!”
If those who were invited reflected on the words of Sirach, they would notice something like what Jesus says. “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.” What is too sublime for us or beyond our strength? Many things! If we humble ourselves, we can accept that there are many things we simply do not understand. And we realize that our proper place at the banquet of the Lord is the place he assigns to us.
The second group Jesus addresses is those who do the inviting. He tells us not to invite the usual guests such as our friends, neighbors, and relatives, but rather “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Pope Francis says this “humble generosity is Christian” and we will receive divine compensation for it.
Jesus is not teaching about etiquette and social norms. The lesson here is not about exterior behavior but the interior life. It may seem as if the Lord is telling us where to sit and forbidding us to have parties for our relatives, but that is not his point. We are not obliged to take these examples literally, any more than we apply the other parables literally. Usually, at a banquet we should simply sit in our assigned seat and not make a fuss about it. Usually, we should provide meals to our relatives and loved ones; Jesus does not forbid this. “Sitting in the lowest place” is an attitude. Giving without concern for any repayment is an attitude. Seeing the poor and the needy as worthy of preferential respect is an attitude. These are the attitudes we find in the heart of Jesus. Here he is describing himself, so that we may follow his example.
The parable of the banquet calls to mind the Mass, which we are all are invited to attend, the blind, the lame, the crippled, the poor. At Mass, each of us has a place of honor and receives the best of all foods, the Eucharist. We do not have the ability to repay the Host, God himself. Our poverty before the Lord should not be a cause for discouragement but great gratitude. Pope Francis asks the Virgin Mary to “help us to recognize ourselves as we are, that is, small; and to give joyfully, without repayment.”
Modern cultures tend to value arrogance over humility. We are taught an attitude of independence from God, a “do-it-yourself” approach to life. In contrast to this idea, humility is often misunderstood as some kind of deliberate bashfulness, or a coy refusal to accept one’s true worth and to take responsibility for one’s life. These superficial imitations are actually false humility, which is a form of pride. We do not see any such complexity in the life of Jesus. Humility does not mean pretending we are something that we are not. It does not mean burying our talents in the ground. The way of Jesus is built on truth. Humility requires a complete acceptance of the truth, starting with the truth that we belong to God and are utterly dependent on him. It is only right that we “sit in the lowest place,” because that is where we truly belong. Humility also means accepting the whole truth about ourselves, including our strengths and our weaknesses, our virtues and our vices.
Growth in humility does not come naturally to us. It is not something we can achieve on our own. As soon as we begin to focus on ourselves, we are already moving toward pride, the opposite of humility. To grow in humility requires that we empty ourselves of all such self-interest and follow Jesus. Our focus is on him, not ourselves. The Letter to the Hebrews invites us to draw near to him, and not to be intimidated by his infinite power. As we come into the presence of God, our pride melts away like ice in the sunshine. As we ponder the glorious assembly of angels and saints, we realize that humility is the very life of Heaven. This is the life we are called to pursue on earth. We do not have to exalt ourselves, for the Lord is the one who exalts us. “The one who humbles himself will be exalted!”
When do I give in to the tendency of displaying false humility? Why do I need to be the first in everything and not think of the others? What is my inner reaction when I am humbled in front of many people?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.