Everyone to whom Jesus addressed his parable in today’s Gospel would have understood how embarrassing the situation he described would have been. The Jewish people of that time had strict dinner etiquette, and trying to assume a more important place at the table was a huge breach of etiquette. On the other hand, being called by the host to take a place next to him would have been a tremendous honor. In a way it was like being put on the same level as the host.
Our first reading and our Gospel today share a common theme, as they often do. A clear theme that emerges from them this week is that of humility. Humility is what I would call a forgotten virtue. How much energy we spend on making sure everyone has a good opinion of us. How often do we pretend to be someone we are not for that reason. How often do we try to elevate ourselves in the eyes of others. We live in a very competitive culture in which self-promotion seems to be necessary, in the workplace and elsewhere. And we live in a society which has been really transformed by social media, which is, let’s be honest, primarily about self-promotion. The whole concept of the selfie is about self-promotion. Look at me and what I am doing. When you travel just about anywhere, it seems that people aren’t so much interested in seeing the sights as they are in getting a picture of themselves in front of the sights.
In contrast to all this, I am reminded of a quote I read about a woman who lived in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and became a Salesian nun. Her name was Teresa Valse Pantellini. The only thing I remember about her is a quote from her that has stayed with me; she once said about her life, “I resolved to pass unnoticed.” How utterly counter-cultural those words are! This is an example of humility that is so great it almost makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s a little like the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” An equivalent of this would be, “If no one notices me, do I matter?” Our culture would say no; Our Lord will tell us otherwise: we matter because he created us and he loves us.
I’m also reminded of the life of St. Catherine Laboure of France, who is remembered because she was visited several times by our Blessed Mother and received from her the Miraculous Medal. What was unusual about these visits was that they were not just apparitions; Mary came to her in bodily form. During one of these visits, Mary was seated in a chair, which by the way you can still see in a chapel in Paris, and she encouraged Catherine, who was kneeling, to lean upon her. What is remarkable is that Catherine, who was also a nun, only ever told her religious superiors about these visits. None of the other nuns in her community or her congregation knew that she had received these visits until Catherine’s death, when it was made known to them.
Another even more beautiful example of humility is that of Our Blessed Mother herself. She was just an unknown, obscure young adolescent when the Angel Gabriel visited her at her home in Nazareth. And her whole life was one of saying yes to the Lord. She said yes to the Lord when the Angel Gabriel told her that she would conceive of a child who would become the Savior of the world. She said yes to Jesus throughout his life, following him all the way to the Cross. And she said yes to the Lord even when it meant seeing him, her beloved only son, suffer and die on the Cross. Saying yes to the Lord involves humility becomes it often means saying no to one’s own desires and plans.
And the most perfect example that we have is of course that of Our Lord Jesus himself. Jesus could have come into this world and said to us, “Stop messing around and get down on your knees and adore me!” He is only one who would truly have the right to say that. But he did not do that. Instead, he came into this world as an infant, completely dependent on Mary and Joseph, just as all babies are completely dependent on their parents. He came into this world to live as a human being, just like us, with our illnesses, our discomforts, feelings of hunger and thirst, having to work to survive, etc. And he came into this world to suffer and die on the Cross at the hands of men for our sake, rejected by the very people he came to save. If Jesus, the Son of God, lowered himself, made himself small for our sake, who are we who to elevate ourselves?
Humility means seeing ourselves as we truly are, both in relationship to others and in relationship to God. For those who have a high opinion of themselves and think themselves better than others, it means you are not as fantastic as you think. For those who feel worthless and have a low opinion of themselves, it means you are worth so much more in God’s eyes than you can imagine. In other words, humility means seeing yourself as God sees you, and seeing the world as God sees it.
And there is another component to humility that today’s Gospel highlights, and that is the call to serve those who are small, even worthless, in the eyes of this world. True humility and service go together. We are called to serve the lowliest and the neediest not because we are better than them but because they are especially precious in the eyes of God, and because they are unable to return the favor. True service means not expecting anything in return. If you help someone out because you are expecting them to return the favor, you’re not really doing anything special or meritorious, you’re just exchanging goods and services. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not true service. Love is a necessary part of true service to others, and love is not really a part of the exchange of goods and services.
Now believe it or not, humility and service to those who are unable to repay you do actually benefit you. There is something in it for you after all! True humility will improve all of your relationships: from your relationship with God, to your relationships with your family members and loved ones, your relationships with friends and co-workers, even your relationships with acquaintances and strangers. After all, how many times have our relationships with others suffered because we have felt slighted by them? How many times have we gotten upset because we felt that we were not being treated with the respect we deserve? And conversely, how many times have others gotten upset with us because they perceived that we were not giving them the respect they deserved, or who thought they we were being insensitive and disrespectful to them, even when we had no intention of doing so? How often have we dug in our heals in an argument because we did not want to admit we were wrong? How often have we refused to say sorry even when we were in the wrong? Humility – admitting we’re wrong when we’re wrong, apologizing when we need to apologize, asking forgiveness when we need to ask for forgiveness – heals and strengthens relationships.
And finally, there is what scripture scholars call the “divine reversal.” Those who have elevated themselves above others in this life will be humbled in the next; those who have “passed unnoticed” in this life, who have humbled themselves, who have associated themselves with and served the lowliest and the neediest in this life, will be exalted in the next. And the perfect example of this again is Jesus Christ, who lowered himself below every human being in this world, to rise and be exalted as the divine Son of God in heaven. Jesus – who has lowered himself to come to us under the presence of bread and wine in the Eucharist at every Mass. As we go forward to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, let us ask him for the virtue of humility, so that one day we will be exalted with him in heaven.