- On September 5, 2013
The Gospel of Luke speaks to me, probably more than the others, because of where Jesus teaches and preaches. As opposed to the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus does so much preaching from mountains and hilltops, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus preaching and teaching from dining halls and tabletops. I like this because it reminds me of my own family and where we learned so many valuable life lessons, at the dinner table. But let’s be honest… it also reminds me of food, and I like food too, and so for that reason, I can relate.
The Gospel today is a lesson in humility from the dinner table. Jesus tells the Pharisees not to take the place of honor at the table, because you may be asked to move to a lower seat, which would be embarrassing. Instead, take the lower seat and be asked to move up to the place of honor and win the esteem of the guests. I can relate to the “seat of honor” thing. Growing up in a family of seven with five kids, the good seats were always in high demand. Whenever we left the house, my two older brothers would always run outside first and “call” the window seat of the family station wagon. My little brother and sister always rode up front with mom and dad (without child safety seats, this was the 70’s), or they rode in the very back (the way, way back) looking out the back window like a couple of pet dogs making faces at the cars behind us. But for me, being the stereotypical middle child, I was relegated to the middle seat with no window view, no cool breeze, and the subject of teasing from all sides. It got to the point that even when I got outside first, I would just call out, “Back seat middle on the hump!” because I was so used to having that lowly seat of shame. The same thing happened at the dinner table, being stuck in the middle of the table; and after dinner in the den around the television, being stuck in the middle of the sofa. But, it could have been worse. Because I could have had the seats on the floor in front of the TV, which meant you were also the “remote control” that had to get up and change the channels on the dial, or worse, you were the “rabbit ears” that had to adjust the picture and hold the antenna just right so that the snow or lines disappeared on the Uhf stations. And if you tell this to kids today, they look at you with a blank stare and then go back to texting their friends on their iPhone, sending the next tweet to their twitter account, or updating their facebook on their iPad; all so that everyone knows what we are doing and so they will respond favorably to our status.
In the world we live in today, humility, the virtue of lowering yourself to lift others up, to bring others closer to God, is very rare. Yet it is the constant trait of every saint. I was told a story by my former rector in the seminary about a Bishop making his visit to the wealthiest parish in his diocese. Part of the parish visit was a question and answer session with the parishioners, and after the many questions about the school, the sports programs, the building fund and the bishop’s appeal, one parishioner stood up and asked this familiar question: “Bishop, what must we do to gain everlasting life?” The Bishop smiled knowing that the question came directly from the “rich young man” in Sacred Scriptures. He gathered his thoughts and responded to all present. “To gain everlasting life, to get into heaven, you must do three things. First, you must follow the example of our Lord who humbled himself to become one of us-like Him, you must practice the virtue of humility. Second, you must follow the example of our Blessed Mother, who, even though she was afraid and anxious, trusted in God and said, ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word.’- like her, you must practice the virtue of humility. And third, you must follow the example of all the saints. All those who accepted the Crosses that Jesus gave them and echoed His words: ‘not my will, but your will be done.’- like them, you must practice the virtue of humility. Three things: humility, Humility, and HUMILITY!”
Humility is the hinge of our call to holiness. It is the answer to the extremes of sinfulness that define our world today. If you think of the scene of the celebration around the dining table and the seats of honor, there are two extremes. One is the prideful man who thinks he is the most important and so he seeks the best seat. But then there is also the man, who because of his own sinfulness, does not even come into the door. That is also the sin of pride. The first imitates the sin of Adam and Eve who seek to be like God and be the most important. They want to know all there is to know and answer to no one. For them, God humbles himself and becomes one like us. He humbles himself to show that the glory of God is found in serving others. The second imitates the sin of Judas, who despairs of his own sinfulness and then believes his sins are greater than God. He believes that he cannot be forgiven, that he cannot be loved, and that he is not welcome at the feast. For him, God humbles himself and accepts the embarrassing death on a Cross. He humbles himself to show that in his humility, His love can conquer sin and death, and He did this for all of us. Jesus reaches out to the prideful and the despairing with the gift and grace of humility. Humility allows one to give up his seat to someone else to make them feel welcome and loved. And humility allows one to realize that God actually knows what He is doing when He calls us to His feast, and that we are also loved and welcome to come into His celebration.
St. Augustine stated early in his life that Sacred Scripture made no sense to him. In the stories and parables of the Bible, holy men and women were constantly being humbled and made low, and for what purpose? St. Augustine thought, that if God blessed him with the intellect and talents that he had, it was to glorify God to use them to their fullest. Only after meeting St. Ambrose, a man who was on the same level with him intellectually, but far surpassed him in humility and holiness, did he understand God’s will. Our talents and gifts are not to be lauded over one another, but are to be used to lift them up to God. For when we come to the door to heaven, we will be amazed that it is not the giant ornate door for the great and glorious, but a very short and humble door, that can only be entered by one who has made himself low, by one on his knees.
As we continue on our journey and pilgrimage to holiness and to everlasting life, let us pray that God graces us with this most important virtue of humility. And let us remember that only a humble person can pray… for prayer is the acknowledgement that we need God, that we are nothing without Him. And the very moment that God sees us fully convinced of the humility of our nothingness, He reaches out to us and gives us what we truly want, and it is a seat at His table. And wherever that seat is, it is the seat He knows we need.