Little Michael found it hard to be humble sometimes. He came running home, all excited, after the first day of school in second grade. “What are you so excited about, Michael? ” his Mother asked. “I’m excited because I’m the most handsome boy in my class!” Michael replied. “How do you know that?” asked his Mother. “Because I looked at all the other boys!”
Little Cathy was outside on her swing set, when her Mom heard her shout. “Mommy, Mommy, come look at me!” Mom went outside, and Susie exclaimed, “Mommy, look how high I can go!”
“See how high I can go!” Doesn’t that cut right to the heart of our existence, our search for meaning and significance in life?
We say to ourselves, “Look at the nice house I live in. Notice the luxury car I drive. Watch me flash my money around. Look at the expensive vacations I can take. Check out my clothes and jewelry! See all the smart and successful people I hang out with. See how young I look for my age! Can you believe how high I can go?!
When we’re flying high, we want others to notice, and when we’re not flying high, we are scraping and scrambling, envious of those who have made it. And when we do get there, we don’t want to share the limelight, of course, so we embrace the American myth that we did it “all by ourselves.” That’s just how good we are, and never mind about our lack of humility.
That issue of humility is at the forefront of our gospel story. Jesus is at dinner at the home of a Pharisee, and it’s on a Sabbath. This is a somewhat familiar setting for Jesus, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, whenever Jesus eats a meal with a Pharisee on a Sabbath, you Just know there is going to be conflict!
That is certainly the case this time. We read that the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely—there’s obviously tension in his relationship with them. No doubt they are remembering his healing of the crippled woman, the daughter of Abraham only a few days ago. And because Jesus, too, is watching closely, observing people’s behavior and attitudes, he is not always the most charming guest to have at one’s table!
Because of what he sees in the behavior of the people around him, he decides to give them a mini-lecture on the importance of table manner. And I’m pretty sure it’s not really table etiquette he’s talking about, it’s really about how things are in the Reign of God.
The host and his guests struggle with the same issue we do: it is sometimes hard to be humble! It’s easier to be proud. It’s easier to cut in line, to be seen in front of other people, to put on a façade of humility while people are watching. Jesus sees all this, and he criticizes the falseness of the guests. Jesus even criticizes the false generosity of the host who, after all, has only invited to the dinner those whom he expects to invite him in return.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus proclaims—not for the first time—“and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The guests who are pushing themselves ahead of others are not living with humility. OK, we got that. But neither are those guests who falsely fade into the background, denying their God-given gifts, and hoping to be noticed in that way. And the host, who invites only those who can return the invitation—well there’s no humility in that, either.
Jesus is trying to teach humility by actually living in humility. All these gospel readings over the summer have one thing in common: Jesus is on his w ay to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He has rejected violence as a means to bringing about the Reign of God; he knows that the only way forward is for him to become the servant of all. Submitting to God’s plan faithfully, he knows he will be accused falsely and suffer a great deal. But in his dying and rising, he will establish God’s rule of mercy and forgiveness and healing and liberation right here—right on this earth. That’s why he insists on humility for himself and for us.
In a world where we never think of the poor except at Christmas time when we have food and clothing drives galore but then ignore the poor for another year, in a world where we are encouraged to be the “best we can be”, and in a world where success at the expense of others is openly admired, why would we want to follow Jesus’ example??
As hard as it was for the Pharisee and his dinner guests to be humble, Jesus came to dinner with them. And as hard as it is for us to be humble, Jesus comes to eat with us! In fact, every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus comes to eat with us, to be our host, to be our food and drink, as we come, hungry and thirsty, empty-handed and broken, to his table.
Jesus has humbly put aside all the attributes of divinity and has submitted to a brutal death, been vindicated by the Father through his resurrection, and yet it is precisely this same Jesus who continues to humble himself by being among us. He honors US with his presence, even when we withhold our presence from him. The Western Church has focused so long on our sinful nature and the consequences of pride, without much success I would say. Perhaps it would be useful to embrace the Eastern Church’s perspective instead. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with us, maybe we could find a way forward if we simply embraced our divine nature in Christ instead. Instead of focusing on our sinfulness, maybe we could learn humility by remembering who we are and then, instead of striving to avoid sin, w simply surrendered and released all those attitudes and actions that are simply unworthy of a divine daughter or son of God???
Jesus comes to dwell with us, to clothe us in his humility, and to teach us that we don’t have to exalt ourselves—because God has already exalted us beyond our wildest imaginings. Jesus comes to eat with us—we who are the least deserving of his forgiveness and love—and to share hospitality with us just because he can. He eats and drinks with the poor and the maimed and the blind and with sinners—even with us!
One of America’s first TV evangelists, way back in the early days of television, had something to say about humility. I’m talking about Bishop Fulton Sheen, who was beloved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the 1950s and 60s. “Humility,” Bishop Sheen said, “is like underwear: we should always wear it, but never let it show.” What does that mean? It means that, clothed with genuine Christ-like humility, we seek first to serve others as Christ served. But it also means that we properly value ourselves. Others are not allowed to trample upon us because, after all, we are so immensely valuable to God and to God’s plan, that Jesus came specifically to live and ultimately die for each of us.
So, we wear our humility, but we don’t let it show. And how do we wear it?
• As guests in Christ’s kingdom, we don’t push to rise above others because, after all, we’ve already been given an equal share of grace and healing and divinity in the Reign of God.
• Christ has no body now but ours, so as hosts in his name, we invite and welcome all—everyone—to share in our community of fellowship and service. It might be hard to be humble, but Jesus shows us it’s not impossible. So, let’s go change our underwear and not let anyone else know!