Jesus exhorts his disciples to live lives of humility. He says: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In today’s passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus gives two instructions on humility that help illustrate His saying on humility. Both examples involve a dinner for guests.
The first example is offered from the vantage point of an invited guest. Here the guest should not presume a seat of honor, nor should he look for the seat of honor. Rather, he should take the lowest seat available. In doing this, the guest places all the other guests ahead of himself. The humility bears fruit in love, for his concern is not for himself but for the other guests. If he is invited to a higher place so be it. But the place of status is not to be sought, for doing so will rob the opportunity of selflessness.
The second example is offered from the vantage point of a host. The example Jesus gives is somewhat jolting. The normal, expected and accepted behavior of having a dinner party or gathering would entail inviting friends and family. Jesus tells us that rather than inviting someone who can give you something in return, most likely an invitation to a reciprocal dinner or in the case of a “wealthy neighbor” perhaps influence or business, invite those who cannot give you anything. He specifically mentions the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. In this case hosting a dinner becomes an opportunity for a completely selfless act of kindness.
Both examples help illustrate the call to humility. Jesus is the best example of humility. His entire life was one of giving of Himself in love. St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians speaks of this humility in terms of self-emptying: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
The first reading for today’s liturgy from the Book of Sirach also urges us to live humble lives. The saying is offered as advice as from a parent to a child. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God” (Sir. 3:17-18).
Humility is a challenging topic. Speaking about humility or even encouraging humility may present an obstacle to our “being humble” for the attention is on ourselves rather than on God or others. St. Francis de Sales captures this in his saying: “true humility makes no pretense of being humble, and scarcely utters words of humility.”
Keeping our focus on God in the core of our heart, with the ever-present awareness that our quest for the divine entails the love of neighbor, is one way that humility can develop in us. In this way, the center of our existence is not ourselves but God.
I recently came upon a story that might help illustrate this concept of humility. There was a holy man who cared a great deal for others. His sanctity was recognized in his ability to accept others, looking beyond appearance or ability, sinfulness or inadequacies. Thus he was able to love and to forgive from the heart.
One day an angel appeared to him. The angel said God wanted to reward him. “Ask for anything and it will be given you.” “I do not want anything save for what God desires to give,” the man replied. The angel persisted, offering him the gift of healing. He replied: “No, I’d rather God do the healing himself,” the man said. He was offered the ability to bring sinners to righteousness. “No, that is the work of the angels.” He was offered the reputation of a model of virtue. “No, that would make me the center of attention.” The angel finally said, “You have to ask for something.”
“OK,” came the reply, “let good be done for me without my being aware of it.” The angel replied, “it will be done.” At that point anyone or anything that his shadow passed over would be renewed – sick were healed, the sorrowful received consolation, dry land would become fertile, and so forth. The people became so focused on the shadow that the man was forgotten and thus his desire for humility fulfilled without even mentioning it.
Finally, Jesus says that those who humble themselves will be exalted. The exaltation of the humble comes in two ways. The immediate exaltation is the gift of giving. Great joy comes with love. At the heart of humility is love. The act of loving is reward in itself.
The Prayer of St. Francis captures it simply as “in giving we receive.” The second way is the final reward. Jesus often describes the kingdom of heaven as a banquet with a large table. “Giving up our seat” now will ensure us a “seat” at the heavenly table. The more we imitate Jesus’ humility – laying down our lives in love – is essentially a share in the dying of Christ. And if we die with Christ we are promised a like share in His resurrection.
The call to humility is essentially a call to love. Jesus is our model and example. He is the one who calls us to humility and He is the one who gives the grace to live it out.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.