Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Being a priest, it is almost impossible to find ourselves at any table other than the VIP table at a Church function. So, it’s a little difficult to heed the Lord’s advice, “make your way to the lowest place and sit there.” If I had my way, I would make my way to the back of the hall, closest to the toilets for convenience, and to the exit to facilitate a quick get-away when no one’s looking. But in deference to the organisers and as a “guest of honour” we don’t get to choose where to sit. You just submit yourself like a puppet to the host who will tell you, “Father, move up higher” and you simply comply. This is the irony and the paradox of humility. In insisting, in the name of humility, of wanting to be seated at a more humble and discrete position, it actually betrays my arrogance. Even if we think that our way is the more humble one, the more magnanimous, the more charitable option, it would be pride and not humility that would be insisting on this. Humility is doing what you must do, even when you don’t prefer it.
You could think that humility is packaged in, wearing plain clothes, taking the lowest positions and in doing menial jobs; by no means—there may still lurk a great deal of pride at the bottom of this outward appearance of humility. It may very well happen, that by adopting this mode you wish to distinguish yourself from others, and to pass as a better and more humble man than they, and so all may be but a sort of refined pride. Note that these exterior things, are no guarantee of true humility. Humility is never worn like a badge declaring “I am Humble!” or trumpeted by the one who practices it. This is the paradox of humility.
There is something utterly self-defeating about seeking humility. For example, if I try really hard to achieve it but ultimately fail, I will end up feeling shamed. That’s pride. On the other hand, if I actually succeed in my quest, I will inevitably soon find myself proud of it. Do you see the problem? When we are trying so hard to look humble, isn’t that a form of vanity and pride of the highest kind. Humility as “show” or as “achievement” is no humility. It is just vanity and pride under a not-so-discrete disguise. True virtue seeks to remain hidden. It is just this enigma that the Lord addresses in the curious parable that we have just heard.
Now the parable may seem familiar enough and easily comprehensible but don’t be too quick to judge. In fact it feels almost like the Lord is proposing a self-serving strategy – if you want to climb the corporate ladder, make sure you play the game by positioning yourself as an underdog with the intention of gaining a promotion. Here's the point: how much humility are we showing as we take our seat at the low end of the social spectrum? Aren't we just aiming for someone significant to notice us and lead us to a socially more advantageous spot? Nothing humble about this. That's why this parable is a snare. It exposes the true condition of our hearts. The parable does not claim to present a picture of noble virtue. Our Lord directs is to the self-centred mentality of His audience. They secretly want to be exalted, but they want to be subtle about it. In the face of such subtle self-exaltation, the Lord promises, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Here lies the clue to this parable. Those who seek through their own efforts to exalt themselves, either by some shameless act of publicising self or by using more subtle methods of playing humble, will fail – they will be found out and humbled by God. On the other hand, those who are truly humble realise that their exaltation is ultimately the work of God, and comes through no effort of their own. Whether someone gets exalted or humbled is not the work of man, neither does it come from public approval or disapproval. Ultimately, God will be his judge.
By using the metaphor of a meal, our Lord is anticipating the heavenly banquet. Here Jesus is telling us that we are not the ones to decide which position we deserve. Our very presence at the heavenly banquet is God's gift. No one gets to attend without being invited. No one deserves this. No one is entitled to have the best seats. God will overturn our sense of priorities and will give the highest places to those whom the worldly consider to be the least important. This is the reason why the humble man forgets himself. And finally, when he is gathered in the midst of angels in the “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … in which everyone is a first born son and a citizen of heaven,” he recognises that this too is a gift from God. The humble man understands that he did not earn this, for all this would not be possible without the sacrifice and work of “Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant.”
The first reading tells us: “there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him.” But for the humble, he is assured that he “will find favour with the Lord” who “accepts the homage of the humble.” The ancient sage who wrote these words understood that God is honoured only by those who make nothing of themselves. God is the One who is the source of all good things, it is He who hands out good gifts, hence a man can never boast of anything – even his humility. Other people may consider him important, but he himself knows that he owes all he has to God. The cure to our arrogance and ambition becomes possible when we go to God, acknowledging upfront that we are truly helpless without Him. Humility ultimately means being free from thinking about yourself at all. Only then, can we begin to think about God. For we do not possess the cure to our own arrogance.
There is another important element in the parable. The prerequisite for humility is obedience. Notice that the guest only needs to heed the instruction of the host and comply. “Give up your place to this man,” or “move up higher.” You have no say in the matter. St Ignatius of Loyola saw obedience as synonymous with humility. In fact in describing the three kinds of humility in his Spiritual Exercises, he described the first kind as “to subject and humble (oneself) as to obey the law of God our Lord in all things … and would (not) consent to violate a commandment, whether divine or human, that binds (us) under pain of mortal sin)” (Sp Ex No. 165). St Ignatius saw this type of humility or obedience as “necessary for salvation.” St. Thomas Aquinas explains that by obedience “we slay our own will by humbly giving way to another’s voice.” Therefore, it is not humility but rather pride when one deliberately chooses to depart from the rubrics of the liturgy or excuse oneself from the disciplines of the Church or moral law.
Most of us are familiar with the humility of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. But very few realise that he is not the first pope hailed for being a paragon of humility. The Pope who came from humble and impoverished origins is Pope St Pius X. St Pius was often uneasy with the pomp of his new role. An old friend recalled coming to visit St Pius after his election. He found the new pope in tears. “Look,” he said, gesturing to his rich and heavy papal vestments, “how they have dressed me up.” Rather than rejecting the pomp and pageantry of the papal court, Pope St Pius X resigned himself to it because humility is not insisting on our way but when we “slay our own will by humbly giving way to another’s voice.” And in the case of St Pius X, that voice was the voice of Christ speaking through Mother Church. Doing what you must do, even when your personal preferences lie elsewhere – that, my friends, is “humility.”