• Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
• Ps 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
• Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a
• Lk 14:1, 7-14
Years ago I came up with a little line that I use from time to time, if a conversation warrants it: “I’m especially proud of my humility!” It is, of course, meant to be humorous and self-deprecating, but it is also meant to highlight how exceedingly difficult it is to truly be humble. After all, if I am aware that I am humble, am I actually humble? “True humility,” explained St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life, “makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” This seems so counter-intuitive, in part because, wounded by sin, we are drawn toward pride and arrogance, toward being praised, flattered, and recognized.
Yet real humility requires that we examine and know ourselves, and thus see who we really are. “Humility is both one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain,” wrote Ven. John Henry Newman (soon to be canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to England). “It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound.” How true! We see examples of false humility all around us—and within us. If there is one thing I know about myself, it is that I have a tenuous, trying relationship with humility!
Jesus, the greatest observer of human behavior and the human heart, saw how the guests at the home of a leading Pharisee were jostling for positions of honor at the dinner table. He took the opportunity to chide them about their priorities and their pride. As was so often the case, Jesus drew upon the Scriptures, even while drawing out deeper meanings from them. Here, he very likely had this passage from the Wisdom literature in mind: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince” (Prov. 25:6-7). Similar statements can be found in rabbinic teachings.
But Jesus focus was not, in the end, on seating arrangements at dinner, for he refers instead to “a wedding banquet.” And the banquet Jesus had in mind is not an earthly one, but a heavenly one, the “festal gathering” in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22). His primary concern was not social etiquette, but humility in the face of divine judgment and the Last Day. “For you will be repaid,” he told the guests, “at the resurrection of the righteous.” The clear implication is that the righteous are not self-seeking and prideful.
Most people are familiar with this well-known, paradoxical statement from today’s Gospel reading: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Notice that self-exaltation is always false exaltation. Our attempts to exalt ourselves will eventually crumble, for pride goes before the fall. Yet we are able to humble ourselves, to seek self-abasement and meekness of spirit.
True humility comes from recognizing who we are in relation to God, the Creator of heaven and earth. “Meekness in itself is nought else, but a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is,” wrote the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Humility includes realizing the fragile and temporal nature of our lives here and now. It means recognizing the limits of our abilities and knowledge, as we hear in today’s reading from Sirach: “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.” The dominant secular culture says otherwise; it seeks in countless ways to push beyond the boundaries of morality, natural law, and divine revelation—as if such madness will lead to anything but disaster and spiritual destitution.
“Humility,” said St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “is the mother of salvation.” This goes right to the heart of today’s readings. Without humility, we starve; with humility, we feast.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 29, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)