In the Gospel just proclaimed, Jesus was at a dinner and the people were “observing him carefully.” The fact is that he was also observing them carefully with the intent to teach them. Jesus was not teaching good manners or how to get ahead. He teaches good discipleship and how to get to heaven.
Our readings this week encourage us to approach social gatherings with humility. Jesus used a wedding banquet as an example. The ultimate wedding banquet of course is heaven. When priests get together, one of the topics is inevitably weddings. We are not taught in seminary how to choreograph a wedding, though we must. We learn it the hard way. It is amazing how complex weddings can become. Many in families have strong views on how weddings should go. They often do not agree. Authoritative sources are consulted such as Miss Manners on ‘Painfully Proper Weddings’. In the Catholic Church, weddings are not private events. They are the prayer of the church for and with the bride and groom. That is why we expect weddings to be in a church and that they follow approved liturgical norms, not the fad of the day. This is to assure the prayerfulness of these sacred moments as a family of faith.
Jesus tells us we need to approach social events including weddings with humility. Humility acknowledges our need for God, and therefore placing God before our narrow interests. Humility is most often challenged in our relationships with others. One writer described humility as an acceptance of reality, a recognition that we are not the center of the universe and the disposition that all persons are valued and worthy having been created in the image and likeness of God.
When I served as legal counsel to a governor in Wisconsin
I often attended formal dinners the governor hosted for legislators in the Governor’s residence. The main dining room could seat around 30. The rest of the guests sat in adjacent rooms. It was always interesting to see who would head to the main dining room assuming they would sit at the table with the governor. As in the parable, finding no place card, many had to move to the other room a little sheepishly.
Many years ago Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts. He was in a lunch line one day and a piece of chicken was put on his plate. “May I have another”, he asked. “One per person”, the woman serving said. “But I’m very hungry”. “One per person”. “Do you know who I am?” he said sternly. “I am the governor of Massachusetts”. “And I am the server of the chicken, one per person.” Someone said we learn humility or humiliation.
Humility is not a judgment we can make about ourselves; we ought not to pride ourselves on our humility. Someone suggested that a truly humble person does not know it. It is evidenced through the attitude he or she brings to the little as well as big things of life and to those we encounter by plan or by chance.
There are two forms of pride. One is when we have an exalted view of ourselves. We bishops and priests have to be careful we do not suffer from this. We sit up here in the sanctuary looking over “our” people at “our” Mass. I sit in this chair where others do not (it’s not as comfortable as it may look). Bowing and genuflecting as part of our worship is God’s way I think to help us remember our place; as our bones creak, it becomes clear that nothing is mine or yours. All is God’s, a present from the Father, delivered by the Son and maintained by the Holy Spirit.
The other form of pride is when we have a false view of ourselves, like Uriah Heap of Charles Dickens fame who continually mumbled “what a humble man am I,” all the time judging, cheating and looking down on others. That is hypocritical humility. Christian humility recognizes that all persons are gifted by God with life and therefore have inherent value and recognizing that Jesus died on the cross for the redemption of all, saints and sinners, of which we at times are both.
Jesus has a special love for the poor, the outcast, the disabled, and the vulnerable. He said they are the ones we should invite to the wedding banquet and into our lives even though they cannot repay. He offered himself on the cross for us, even though we cannot repay. He continues to offer himself to us through the Holy Eucharist even though we cannot repay. What we can do is to live our lives with the awe and humility His sacrificial act should engender in us by being instruments of his love and mercy. We are recipients of God’s love and mercy and in gratitude we ought to pass it on.
That is why we must be so strong in defense of life from conception to natural death and all the years in between and the protection of religious liberty. God alone is the giver of life and God alone is to decide when this earthly life should end. For us to “choose” life or death is replacing God with our prideful selves.
Rita was 20 years old but had not made her first communion. She was born without the normal use of her arms and legs. She could not walk and was barely able to hold things in her hands. She could only say a few words though unclearly. Her family worked to help her learn to the extent she could. Few thought that she was able to understand the Eucharist enough to knowingly receive. A young priest after spending some time with her realized how much she did understand and how much she truly wanted to receive Holy Communion. He spent hours with her, preparing her. Finally one day she came to the altar in her wheel chair and received the Body of Christ. Her happiness was apparent to all. She understood that she was welcome at the banquet; her humility reflected the joy that comes with being one with God. True humility sings the song of joy and gratitude because of God’s unconditional love.
In our first reading from Sirach, the advice is given: “conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than the giver of gifts.” Jesus said: “everyone whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We humble ourselves when we follow the loving and merciful example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who humbled himself for us.