Humbly receptive at the great banquet

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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Sept. 1, 2013
Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Ps 68; Heb 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14

In our Gospel reading today, we hear our Lord Jesus advise: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.'” Now, as literal advice, taking the lowest place with that goal wouldn’t be real humility at all; it would be a manipulative fraud. But we know that our Lord Jesus is telling a parable here, and sometimes when he does so he exaggerates the everyday details of the story in order to make his point.

But imagine for a moment that you did take the advice literally; that you took the lowest place in the banquet; and no one noticed. The host never came to move you. You were forgotten; you were ignored; you were simply at the bottom of the heap for the whole banquet.

It makes me think of a prayer called the Litany of Humility, which was written about a hundred years ago by Cardinal Merry del Val. Perhaps you’ve seen it? You can find it easily with an Internet search. Among its petitions, this litany asks:

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

It is a strong prayer—and possibly a terrifying one. Because we human beings are needy! We need food, warmth, clothing, housing; but just as much we need love, respect, and meaning. And if we were forgotten, if we were humiliated, if we were set aside and unesteemed—how could we bear it?

And that is where the second part of today’s Gospel reading provides Jesus’ answer. Don’t invite people to a dinner who can pay you back, he says; instead, invite those who can never pay you back, so that God will repay you. Once again, Jesus reveals the core of his identity: that he knew himself to be the Son, always connected to the Father. And this is what he recommends to us: if you know that God never forgets you, never stops loving you, always esteems you as his own beloved adopted son or daughter—well, then, you are freed from fear, freed and enabled to be humble.

For that is where pride comes from—the pride that projects an exaggerated claim of who we are, and demands that we be honored, preferred, and obeyed accordingly—it comes from fear, the fear that we won’t receive this any other way. Whereas true humility such as our Lord Jesus urges is founded upon the confident certainty that we are known and loved by God; and therefore we are enabled:

  • to know the truth about ourselves and acknowledge it to ourselves and to others;
  • to have the courage to say and do what is right, without fear of reprisal;
  • to be concerned about others’ needs and to help them, without wondering whether they can repay us.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we can compare pride to an enormous mountain: pushed up there, and looking really impressive in its height; but if we climb it and go higher and higher, we discover that it becomes devoid of life, above the tree line, and possibly nothing but hard stone. Whereas, if we then go down into the valley hidden below and forgotten, we find that the valley is receptive to what flows downward, and thus is full of life, and fosters life, of both plants and animals.

And when we look up “humility” and “humble” throughout the New Testament, who do we find popping up? Jesus and Mary.

  • Mary, the lowly handmaid of the Lord, who knew that the Lord had done great things for her, as he regularly does for the humble. And she, in her beautiful humility, was raised up to be Queen of Heaven and Earth.
  • And Jesus, who said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” And of whom St. Paul wrote:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… (Phil 2:5-10)

Humility softens our shells and enables us to receive all that God wants to give us—like the valley rather than the rocky mountain; like Jesus, like Mary. “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,” as St. Paul wrote (2 Cor 4:7), and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)

“When you are invited to a banquet, go and take the lowest place.” And here we are at a banquet, at Holy Mass, which is a pledge and an initial participation of the heavenly Supper of the Lamb. And how did we begin? By taking the lowest place: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…” No pretenses; no false pride; simply acknowledging the humble truth before God and others so that we can receive all that he wants to give us. So that God himself can say to us: Friend, come up higher!

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