This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 14:1, 7–14:
On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully.
He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a 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. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
My wife and I have shared a joke for many years about bragging and humility. I’ll kid her about being the greatest at something, and she’ll kid back about my humbleness. I then tell her, “Humility runs in our family … if it didn’t, we’d hunt it down and kill it.” That’s not true at all in either of our families, of course, which is why we find these exchanges so funny. We both come from families where unassuming natures predominate, and we live in an area of the country now where that’s far more the norm than the exception.
All of our readings today touch on the concept of humility. In Sirach 3, the reading reminds us to “conduct your affairs with humility,” and to “humble yourself the more the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Paul writes to the Hebrews somewhat more obliquely on humility by reminding them that the new covenant brings them to “the heavenly Jerusalem,” depicting the kingdom of God in glorious and daunting terms.
What, then, is humility? It’s easy to downplay and deprecate one’s self, but it’s also easy to fall into the trap of false humility — which is a prideful exercise in its own right. Insisting that one is the lowest of the low when it’s clear that this is patently false acts more as a means to get people to protest and extol one’s virtues. It’s as dishonest as believing one to be the greatest, and that one’s virtues and talents come entirely from oneself.
Rather, humility is about truth. C.S. Lewis explained this with humor in chapter 14 of The Screwtape Letters. “Fix in his mind,” Lewis has the demon Screwtape advising his nephew Wormwood for tempting humans into sin, “the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes them to be,” Screwtape continues, “but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue.”
Humility is more than just self-deprecation — in fact, those are two different things, although perhaps overlapping. Humility is about understanding our right relationship with the Lord, and therefore with each other. Dishonesty in any form clouds our ability to perceive that right relationship, and turns humility into a secret form of pride, although it eventually becomes a lot less secret than we think. We are not called to denigrate or hide our gifts and talents, but to use them while giving glory to the Lord. True humility, Lewis writes, is the “state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.”
We find favor with the Lord, as Sirach notes, as we become more humble, in that sense in which we understand that our talents and gifts come from the Lord. Humility is not deprecating those gifts, but in understanding that they do not originate with us and are meant in some way to serve our brothers and sisters — as theirs are meant to serve us, and so on. The stark contrast in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews also hints at this right relationship between the Lord and us, a contrast that makes rank and pretense among us almost comical.
In that context, imagine Jesus’ reaction to the scene unfolding before him at the dinner. No doubt this was considered an important occasion, as a leading Pharisee had invited what appeared to be an itinerant and popular teacher to converse with the religious leadership of the community on Sabbath. Because of its importance, the others felt the need to ensure that they protected their rank and authority without understanding that rank and authority in contrast to Jesus meant nothing.
Rather than rebuke them directly, though, Jesus offers a parable, or perhaps more of an analogy, to explain why humility matters in the eyes of God. It is not for us to set ranks and privilege on the basis of gifts, and then to assume we will have those places at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The Lord of Hosts will make those assignments, and we do better to prepare ourselves by recognizing that we do not have the authority or insight to usurp that judgment. Jesus’ advice is good socially in this world as well — better to have a host raise you up than demote you in public — but this is about recognizing that right relationship between the Lord, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Jesus’ choice to offer a kindly analogy rather than a direct rebuke reminds us of His promise to us in Matthew 11:29, today’s Gospel acclamation: Take my yoke upon you, says the Lord, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. “Meek” does not mean powerless or afraid in this sense; it refers to a power purposefully left unused in order to assist others. The Lord wants us to have that same sense of humility and meekness, understanding our place and the purpose of our gifts and directing them in service to God’s children, just as the Lord has done with us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To put it more plainly, humility is our path to salvation because it brings us closer to the caritas of God and forms us to His will.
Both pride and false humility are self-deceptions which blind us to this path. Only by casting aside our delusions can we see ourselves honestly, and understand the glory and wisdom of humility, as well as the love of God.
The front page image is “Christ in the house of the Pharisee,” Jacopo Tintoretto, 16th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.