by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“For all those who make themselves great will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be made great.” Luke 14: 1, 7-14
One could browse today’s three readings and conclude that they add up to a set of hints about how to make a name for oneself or to enhance one’s public approval. What we know of the writers of Sirach and Hebrews and of Luke and Jesus themselves is sufficient to convince us that none of them was interested in dispensing worldly wisdom.
But simply being aware that all three readings are about the virtue of humility is still not enough to give us a proper appreciation of the message we are meant to take from them. So, I suggest all three are worthy of close attention.
In the first reading, Ben Sira seems to be saying that humility is all about knowing and accepting the truth of who we are, and to be careful of pretending that we are more than who we really are. And he concludes by pointing out that the mark of truly wise people is that they know how to listen. Moreover, we all know from our own experience that we get turned off by people who are intent on big-noting themselves. True humility consists in realising that all we are, achieve and have is gift from God.
While the reading from Hebrews presents two divine visitations, the second one is described in terms that are subdued, by comparison with the description of God’s visitation to Moses. In the mind of the writer of Hebrews, God does not subscribe to self-aggrandisement or spectacular self-revelation. By implication the message for us is that big-noting ourselves is totally foreign to a proper understanding of humility.
In the gospel-reading, Luke describes the kind of humility that Jesus promoted. Luke begins by describing Jesus’ amusement when he witnessed guests jockeying for position around the table, when they were invited to a meal in the house of a leading Pharisee. Experiencing a mixture of shock and amusement at the antics of the guests, Jesus spontaneously gave them a parable on which to reflect. While, on the surface, it looks as though Jesus was giving them advice on how to get a host to offer them special treatment, he was instructing them about the futility of arrogance, self-serving and inflating one’s ego. Having completed his parable, Jesus offered a variation on the following statement from the Book of Proverbs: “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence; do not stand in the place of nobles. For it is better to be told: ‘Step up here’ than to be degraded in the presence of the great.” (Proverbs 25: 6-7)
Wanting to be lionised and made a fuss of risks deluding ourselves into believing that we are self-sufficient, dependent on nobody but ourselves. Mark Twain once shrewdly observed: “The self-made man is as likely as a self-laid egg.”
Setting out to win the adulation and admiration of the crowd can lead to our ignoring just how dependent we are on others. Here in Australia, the advent of covid and the destruction resulting from persistent rain and flooding have disrupted the supply of food to which many of us have become accustomed. Suddenly, we have been forced to realise just how dependent we are on the farmers who feed us and the people who transport supplies to retail stores. In reality, our lives have been built on a succession of dependencies on the parents who loved us into life and nurtured and fed us, on the teachers who accompanied us into using our intelligence and creativity, on manufacturers who have ensured the supplies we need of power, water and sewerage, and on the God who created the world whose bounty has been almost inexhaustible.
The latter part of today’s gospel-reading will not let us ignore the people around us with whom we might not be inclined to associate, the ones whom our society frequently wants to keep hidden or even devalued. – the blind, the physically disabled, the beggars, the very ones to whom Jesus urges us to extend hospitality. Being host to them is being true to the fact that they are our sisters and brothers. This fits the definition of humility as honouring the truth of the reality that surrounds us and the truth of the reality of who we are as people who will never be complete for as long as we fail to express the love in our hearts by reaching out to “the beggars and the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Luke 14: 13).
Maimonides, the great medieval, Jewish philosopher and expounder of the Torah echoed the teaching of Jesus in his assertion: “When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obliged to feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not involved in rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather in the rejoicing of his own belly.”
Come to think of it, maybe the hidden logic of today’s gospel-reading, and the two readings that accompany it, is that welcoming cripples and beggars might bring us, in the long run, to realise that, before God ,we, too, are cripples and beggars.