Detail from "Christ at Simon the Pharisee" by Peter Paul Rubens (1618-20).
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
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.
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 usand
within us. If there is one thing I know about myself, it is that I
have a tenuous, trying relationship with humility!
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
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
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.
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 revelationas if such madness will lead to anything
but disaster and spiritual destitution.
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.)