Jesus gives a teaching on humility to his disciples in Sunday’s Gospel passage. He uses the parable of the wedding banquet. Anyone who has had to plan a wedding or large event with invited guests can readily imagine the scene. It deals with seating arrangements. Jesus tells his disciples that when they go to a banquet they should take the seat designated for the lowest person. If invited to move up, move up to a higher seat. If not, sit in the lowest place.
He does not get into the questions of “where I deserve to sit,” “where I should sit because of my ‘office’ or ‘position’ in the community or family” or even “where I want to sit.” His teaching is quite specific and simple — “take the lowest place.” At the heart of this teaching is his saying: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Someone might be tempted to ask: “Why is Jesus talking about seating arrangements? Isn’t there something more important to teach his disciples?” The answer lies with something quite profound. Lowering oneself — in other words, emptying oneself of self-concern — is at the heart of love. What might seem like a simple or superfluous activity is actually an exercise in love. The more one can empty oneself in small things, the more one can truly love in the more significant moments of life.
Actually the activity of love is not meant for “moments” but an ongoing pattern of living, deciding, acting and interacting. The freedom that comes from taking the lowest seat liberates one to love. The place of honor means nothing one way or another — the lack of concern regarding the place of honor frees one to love more or love better.
Sirach, in the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy, also speaks of the virtue of humility. He writes: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Humility before God is an act of love.
In a certain sense, humility is an activity of thanksgiving. In recognizing that all good things come from God and should rightly be attributed to him, one is moved to thanksgiving. Many of us will recognize these blessings when we get up in the morning; we thank God for the gift of life and another day. When we see the beauty of the created world we may be moved to thanksgiving and awe at the creative power of God.
But what about when we accomplish things in life? Do we rejoice in our accomplishments as an achievement of our own? Humility affords us the opportunity to recognize that all our talents and abilities, all our own creative endeavors, have their source in the Creator of all and the giver of talents. The response the Lord is looking for is one of thankful praise. Humility helps this to happen.
After speaking about the “seats of honor,” Jesus directs his attention to the host of the dinner. He tells him: “When you hold a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.”
The teaching is multifaceted. Jesus is exhorting us to care for those in need. The hospitality offered by the host is akin to giving alms. At the same time, Jesus is teaching another aspect of humility. The ability to offer hospitality and friendship without expecting something in return is only possible with great humility.
Jesus is not teaching us that we should avoid getting together with family and friends for social occasions but when we do, especially when we are the host, we should do so in a genuine act of hospitality and friendship. Nothing is to be expected in return. This will make the activity an act of love, the free gift of oneself to another. God rejoices in this, for he himself is love.
The liturgy invites us to reflect on humility. Jesus calls us to live this virtue and shows us the way. His life and mission is one complete act of humility. His life and death is the perfect act of love. He invites us to follow on his journey by emptying ourselves in humility and come to a deeper experience of love and life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.