Sirach 3:17–18, 20, 28–29; Hebrews 12:18–19, 22–24; Luke 14: 1, 7–14
The theme of the Old Testament and Gospel readings this week is humility. It's a subject that many of us would rather not talk about. Fortunately, as the parish staff knows, humility happens to be one of my best qualities. Our youth minister, Alex, assures us that his humility is simply amazing.
So what is this virtue of humility? I think we hear the word and associate it with humiliation or with being humiliated, and automatically assume humility is something negative. And surely there is something to it. To be humiliated or to be humbled is to be brought low—to be taken down a notch. Humiliation is something that happens to us. Humility, on the other hand, is something we choose. The word itself means lowness or baseness, But perhaps another way to look at humility is in the order of unpretentiousness, and that is how humility is virtuous. To be humble is to see ourselves as we are—to not pretend to be something we are not. In the Magnificat of Luke 2, Blessed Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden."
Mary recognizes the unmerited gift she has been given. She has done nothing to deserve God's generosity. In our first reading, from Sirach, the writer exhorts the reader, "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God."
Let's paraphrase that. If you are great, you should humble yourself.
Why? Why diminish yourself? How antithetical to our culture is it to be self-diminishing?
Part of the reason for that is that we often mistake true humility for groveling. But groveling is false humility. It's making more of your flaws, often so that people will feel compelled to build you up. Sometimes it comes from a true case of insecurity. No wonder people don't want to be around someone like that. It's exhausting! I once worked with a woman who was beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished, yet she constantly apologized for the slightest misunderstanding, even when she had no control over the situation. You just want to shake some sense into those people.
Naturally, no one likes the opposite end of the spectrum either—someone who is constantly talking about their accomplishments, their skills, and their life extraordinary life experiences. What boorish windbags they can be!
And I really hate it when I discover that I'm that boorish windbag!
We're mistaken if we think that true humility is anywhere on the spectrum between either of those extremes. True humility is recognizing one's true state, one's true capability, one's true failings. The English word humility comes to us from the Latin word humilitas, which means lowliness or meekness. It's related to another term—humus. If you garden or study biology, you recognize that word. In Latin it means earth or ground. So if we extrapolate from there, humility really means to be grounded—not grasping for things too sublime, not seeking the positions of prestige—just being the person you are and recognizing both your gifts and your weaknesses.
Jesus' parable in the gospel reading stresses this point, but He uses a slightly devious tactic. Don't seek for the places of honor, because someone might unseat you, and you'll have to walk back to the lower place at the table while everyone watches. Instead, be content with the low place, and then the host will invite you to take one that is higher, and everyone will see you honored.
Before we accuse Jesus of being passive aggressive here, let's think about what He's saying. The parable is not really meant to instruct people how to behave at a dinner party. That's just the image He uses. Instead, He is talking about our daily walk. How many of us are concerned with matters of prestige and ambition before all else? Alternatively, how many of us go to the office, or to the clinic, or to the retail store with the idea in mind that we want to serve someone to the best of our abilities? That we want to glorify God in our career? That we want to help someone who cannot help themselves?
Jesus isn't calling us to be CEOs. He isn't calling us to be executives. He isn't calling us to be movers and shakers. He is calling us to be servants, where ever we may be in our lives—even if we are CEOs, executives, or movers and shakers. Whatever our station in life, we have to remember—as our Blessed Mother remembered—our lowly state. All that we have comes from God, and we are utterly dependent upon His abundant generosity. It doesn't get much more humble than that right there: He set aside His glory to share our suffering. He makes Himself present here on this altar to feed us daily. And if that does not give us reason to be humble, I don't know what else could.