Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble: Sunday reflection

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.”

One of my favorite novelty songs of my youth was Mac Davis’ It’s Hard to Be Humble. The hilarious lyrics as well as his folksy delivery exposed the vanity of pride and the absolute blindness it produces. “Some folks say that I’m egotistical,” Davis sings at one point, “hell, I don’t even know what that means! I guess it has something to do with the way that I fill out my skin-tight blue jeans.” Davis’ live audience roars with laughter throughout the song as its over-the-top depiction of useless pride resonates with everyone. It’s perhaps one of the quintessential human experiences.

Usually, though, it’s much more difficult to identify than in the first-person voice of Davis’ song. We all struggle with pride, even the least self-assuming of us. Human society was for millennia organized on the principle of nobility, and even in this egalitarian era still organized somewhat on the basis of pride. That is useful to an extent, as long as it’s based on accomplishment and capability more than reputation and popularity — and is not used to exalt one’s existence at the expense of others.

In The Screwtape LettersC.S. Lewis noted the subtle nuances of pride. There is no danger in acknowledging good work done by one’s self as long as one does not set himself apart for having accomplished it, Lewis notes in Letter 14:

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a 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. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.

That’s no easy feat in today’s social-media-driven self-promoting world. Our culture craves rank just as earlier cultures strove to be added to the nobility. The pursuit of rank descends into absurdity and twists values as well, promoting the inconsequential at the expense of the truly necessary. It’s no longer enough to build the world’s best cathedral, but taking the world’s best selfie within the cathedral is what brings fame and rank these days.

And yes, I’m well aware of my Twitter bio.

This was just as true in Jesus’ day, and as He explains in this Gospel reading, equally vacuous in the end. Man’s judgment is not God’s judgment, Jesus repeatedly preaches, and uses this teaching as a way to emphasize the point. The problem of pride goes beyond self-regard but also in how we commoditize those around us in order to maintain or increase our self-love.

Jesus starts off with a humorous situation in which a guest at a wedding assumes a place of honor without having been invited to it. How embarrassing will it be, Jesus teaches, when the host has to tell you to go to Table 19 in front of everyone else? That’s the Mac Davis example, if you will; a person who is so full of himself that he can’t possibly perceive of anyone more important than himself. He’s a buffoon, a figure of ridicule who will serve as an example in novelty songs for millennia.

The second example is more insidious, however. Jesus speaks of those who use pride and rank for aggrandizement. They invite people to their parties in order to oblige them into reciprocity, thereby increasing their own social rank. They are seeking payback — a kind of social extortion by which they can manipulate people for their own selfish benefits.

All of this — all of it — rests on human judgment of worth, not the Lord’s. It mainly has to do with material benefits, not spiritual. And in the end, Jesus teaches, it’s all utter nonsense. God does not value celebrity nor wealth; He values faith and virtue. Our ability to judge others is so limited by our own sin and limited perspective that we cannot possibly rank ourselves rationally, let alone others. It is that realization that represents the true basis of humility, rather than any knee-jerk false self-disparagement that attempts to pretend at humility.

Lewis also has Screwtape’s perspective on that impulse, and on the true nature of vanity and pride:

The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings—the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair. But always and by all methods the Enemy’s aim will be to get the patient’s mind off such questions, and yours will be to fix it on them. Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased[.]

Vanity and pride put us at the center of the universe rather than the Lord. False humility does the same. That makes us the man who attends the feast by first sitting at the place of honor, until the host has to remind him that he’s not the center of the universe. Jesus exhorts disciples to look outside the circle of those who we might exploit to maintain our delusion of grandeur, in order to ground ourselves in the reality of a fallen world that this delusion creates.

Only then can we open our eyes to the Lord as the center of all things, and only then can we experience true humility — and offer whatever gifts we have to His purpose.  Stripping away that self-deception is among the most difficult tasks we have on the path to salvation, but a great welcome of equals at the Feast awaits us when we succeed.

The front-page image is “Supper in Emmaus,” c. 1560 by Paolo Veronese. On display at the Louvre. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.