22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Luke 14:1, 7-14.
AIM: To explain humility and instill a desire for it.
Some American tourists were visiting the house of the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven in
. A young woman who was proud of her
musical abilities sat down at the composer=s piano and played Beethoven=s Moonlight Sonata. When she had
finished, she said to the custodian: AI expect you see a great many
musicians here.@ AYes, we do,@ he replied. AThe American pianist Van Kliburn was here only last week.@ ADid he play on Beethoven=s piano?@ the young woman asked. ANo, he said he wasn=t worthy.@
Truly great people are humble. AConduct your affairs with humility,@ we heard in our first reading. And in the gospel we heard Jesus saying the same: AEveryone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.@
Are we really comfortable with humility? Don=t we suspect that there is something phony about it? That humility means striking a pose, pretending to be less than we really are? Let=s look again at the gospel.
Jesus offers shrewd advice to the person who wants to get ahead in society. When you are invited to a banquet, he says, don=t head straight for the head table. You might be asked to give up your place for someone more important. That would be embarrassing. Take your place far away from the head table. There you don=t risk being pushed aside. And if you=re lucky, your host will ask you to move up to a better place, where everyone can see what good connections you have.
In reality, Jesus gave this shrewd advice Atongue in cheek.@ Can we imagine that Jesus cared where he sat at table? If there is one thing Jesus definitely was not, it was a snob. By seeming to take seriously the scramble for social success, Jesus was actually making fun of it. He was showing up snobbery for the empty and tacky affair it always is.
But Jesus= words have a deeper meaning. This is clear from his opening words: AWhen you are invited to a wedding banquet.@ A wedding banquet is a familiar image in the Bible.
=s prophets speak often of God
inviting his people to a wedding banquet. That was the prophets= way of saying that their people=s sins would not always estrange them
from the all-holy God. There would come a time when God would take away sins,
so that his people could enjoy fellowship with the one who had created them and
still loved them. Israel
Jesus came to fulfill what the prophets had promised. He told people that the wedding banquet was ready. Now was the time to put on the best clothes, he said, and come to the feast. Some of the most religious people in Jesus= day, the Pharisees, were confident that the best seats at God=s banquet were reserved for them. Hadn=t they earned those places by their zealous observance of every detail of God=s law? Jesus= seemingly shrewd advice about how to be a success in society was a rebuke to those who assumed that the best seats at God=s banquet were reserved for them. Jesus was warning them that they were in for a surprise, and that it would be unpleasant.
In the second part of today=s gospel Jesus expands this warning. When you are giving a dinner yourselves, he says, don=t invite socially prominent people who can repay you with return invitations, and whose presence at your table feeds your self-esteem. Instead invite people who cannot repay you, and whose presence in your house will not enhance your reputation in society. Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for associating only with the upright and respectable Apillars of society.@ Jesus invited everyone to the banquet, especially Athe poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.@ His preference for such people earned him the rebuke of the upright and respectable: AThis man receives sinners, and eats with them@ (Luke 15:2). Here, as in the first part of today=s gospel, Jesus, while seeming to give advice about how to behave in society, is really talking about our relationship with God. The measure of our acceptance by God, Jesus warns, is our willingness to accept people we find unsympathetic, uncongenial, not Aour kind.@
That is humility: not bothering where we sit at the banquet; not trying to be seen only with the right people; being willing to be overlooked, to associate with people who can do nothing for us, to be looked down on because of the company we keep B as Jesus was looked down on by respectable people in his day for the company he kept.
Humility is not a pose. It is not phony. Humility does not mean the beautiful woman pretending she is ugly, or the clever man pretending he is stupid. Humility means recognizing our talents and achievements for what they are: things given to us by God out of sheer goodness; things for which we can take little credit or none, but which impose on us a responsibility B as Jesus reminded us when he said: AWhen much has been given a person, much will be expected of him@ (Luke 12:48).
When we come to the end of life=s journey, and stand before the Lord who gave us every one of our talents, and who made possible every one of our achievements, how unimportant and insignificant even our greatest accomplishments will seem. That is why we say at every Mass: ALord, I am not worthy ...@ Before Him who has given us all we are and have, sin excepted, we are always unworthy. When we have done everything God commands (and which of us has?), we are still not worthy of all the love that God lavishes on us. God=s gifts to us always exceed what we deserve, on any strict accounting.
Humility never means pretending we are less than we are. Humility means recognizing that even our greatest achievements are an insignificant and inadequate return for all that God has given us. >Come to God in that spirit of humility,= Jesus says, >and you will be overwhelmed by his generosity. But come to God appealing to what you deserve, claiming the best seats at banquet because you have earned them B and you will get what you deserve. God is not unfair. When you discover, however, how little you deserve, you may be shocked.=
Suppose, on the other hand, that we decide simply to forget about what we deserve. Suppose the lowest place at the banquet is just as acceptable as the place of honor B as it was for Jesus. Suppose that we appeal not to what we deserve, but to God=s generosity. Then B if we do that B we shall have achieved something infinitely more important than the things of which we are most proud. For then we shall have attained humility.
Humility means being empty before God. And it is only the person who is empty whom God can fill with his joy, his love, and his peace.