by Brother Julian McDonald cfc
“…all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but they who humble themselves will be exalted”…Then he turned to the host: “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours, the kind of people who will return the favour. Invite some people who never get invited out – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; they won’t be able to return the favour, but you’ll be – and experience – a blessing.” Luke 14, 1, 7-14
While Jesus was not consulted by those who set the readings for this twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, I think he would applaud the first reading from Sirach, especially the concluding sentence: “An attentive ear is the sage’s (wise person’s) dream.” Elsewhere in the Bible we read: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1, 19). After all, the very point of what Jesus says in the gospel reading is to get us to be attentive to the wisdom he offers.
All three readings of today offer us different perspectives of what we understand to be humility. The reading from Sirach suggests that genuine humility lies in accepting ourselves as we are, with all our strengths, foibles and limitations: “Don’t try to understand things that are too hard for you, or investigate matters that are beyond your power to know” (Sirach 3, 20). This does not mean that we simply surrender whenever our interpersonal relationships or the maths and physics we are studying look to be too challenging. The second reading from Hebrews contrasts two encounters with God: one, showy, spectacular and full of blazing fire, the other, a less awesome encounter with thousands of gentle angels. This seems to suggest that humility is something different from being blustery and throwing one’s weight around. Barging, pushing and shoving are out of place in that setting. The first section of the gospel reading sounds a bit like something out of the June Dally Watkins Book of Manners for Young Moderns or The Christian Gentleman politeness book: When you’re invited to a party, be sure to hold back. Be wary of pushing your way to the top table! In fact, Luke has Jesus quote a verse from the Book of Wisdom: “It is better to be told ‘Come up closer’ than to be humbled before the prince” (Wisdom 25, 7).
For generations, we were taught that humility had something to do with “eating humble pie” or being belittled or humiliated in front of others. Sadly, we were given messages that humility was all about God’s cutting us down to size whenever we got a little too big for our boots.
Ultimately, however, humility is all about honest, down-to-earth admission and acceptance of who we are and what we have. When we come to the realisation that we are all loved into life by a loving God and, therefore, all equal as created in God’s image, we can come to appreciate that we and all we have are God’s gifts entrusted to us for the good of one another and our world. It follows, then, that we are stewards of all we are and possess. Modern cosmology demonstrates to us that we are all made of star-dust and, therefore, all equal. The very word “humility” is derived from the Latin word humus, meaning earth. It follows that humility is all about being grounded, being aware that we are of the earth, connected to the earth and to one another. So there is no reason to believe that we are superior to anyone else. And, of course, we are all connected to the creator God in whose image we are made. That is what Jesus demonstrated in the way in which he lived his humanity, his earthiness, to the full.
Today’s gospel reading begins with the heading: Parable of the Invited Guests. However, it’s much more like a story with a very clear message attached: Don’t push yourself into prominence or you’ll probably be pushed to the bottom of the ladder. There’s nothing puzzling about it, and no need for interpretation. Jesus told it to his hosts at a dinner party. However, it was a party to which he was invited by hosts who merely wanted to check him out. Clearly, they saw themselves as superior and they were intent on examining his credentials. So, he was seated at the top table by invitation. After giving those in attendance a clear message about the risks of jockeying for position and the hollowness of fake humility, he launched into a critique of the criteria for inclusion on the guest-list, pointing out that honouring the truth of the real world in which we live involves recognising that among us are the people to whom we don’t extend dinner-party invitations – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and all those whom we forget, exclude and choose not to see. It is this discomforting observation of Jesus that gives today’s gospel a logic that we can easily miss: it is only through contact with real beggars and cripples, with the unwashed and the smelly, that we come to appreciate that it is we ourselves who are the real beggars and cripples before God.
In his dramatically understated account of the horrors of World War I, German novelist, Erich Remarque described how a 19-year-old German soldier, Paul Baumer, hiding in a large shell hole, used a dagger to kill a French soldier named Duval, who jumped into the shell hole beside him. Baumer, the narrator of the story, tells of his inner thoughts and reactions:
“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up – take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
Baumer’s words underline poignantly the truth that not only are we all equal, but that all we are and have are a result of God’s boundless love. Conscious of this, the best we can do is to mirror something of that love to everyone we encounter. Therein lies true humility.