Here we go again. Another oxymoron in Scripture. One of those figures of speech in which apparently contradictory terms are combined. Tragic comedy…pretty ugly...old news…jumbo shrimp…holy war.
The most profound Christian truths are often described by oxymorons…Virgin birth...One God, three Persons…we have to die to live…last week’s Gospel…the first will be last and the last shall be first…and now another in today’s Gospel…whoever exalts oneself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
When Jesus was dining at the home of the leading Pharisee…you can picture the scene. An important social event at one of the nicest homes in the city…beautifully decorated tables with the finest plate wear. You get the feeling that this was a power dinner where the invited guests were the religious elite, many of them self-righteous men whose egos caused them to believe that they were more important than the others, each maneuvering and clamoring for the attention. Jesus was probably amused at the way these guys were falling all over themselves to secure a place of honor next to the dinner host.
Using a parable, Jesus taught these pompous men an important lesson about the spiritual life's most important virtue. The teaching is simple and straight-forward. If you want to sit in the seat of honor, humility is the way to get there. Those who choose the seat of humility will be moved up to a seat of honor. But those who choose the seat of honor will be moved to a seat of humility.
Humility does not mean shame or dishonor. Means having a modest opinion of one’s own importance or rank. It’s being courteous and mindful of others. Rather than “ME FIRST”, humility allows us to say, “NO, MY FRIEND, YOU FIRST.” The quality or characteristic that says, it's okay to go more than halfway to meet the needs and the demands of others.
I don’t like it when people say marriage is 50/50. No, divorce is 50/50. Marriage is 100/100. When spouses have the attitude that they will meet each other half way, but not an inch more, that's a recipe for divorce. Refusal to go the extra mile is pride speaking; the ego dominating the will of the heart. True, fairness and even justice may require or even demand that spouses meet in the middle. But love and mercy transcend fairness and justice.
On those rare occasions that my spouse is not willing to meet me half way, I have to swallow my pride and say, if I want this marriage to succeed, I must be willing to meet her wherever she is, and I will go as far as I have to go, because I love her and I made a solemn promise to stay with her until death do us part. No doubt, there are many days when my moodiness refuses to meet Sandra halfway. Thank God, her humility allows her to meet me wherever I am, even if it means she has to go 100% of the way.
You see, humility is the fertile soil of love. It dissipates anger and pride. Gives us the grace to forgive those who have hurt us and to show mercy towards those who need us. True love always, always, depends on one’s ability to overcome the ego and to love outside one’s self. Without the virtue of humility, love would be impossible.
St. Augustine (today is his feast day) said, “These are the three most important virtues in the spiritual life…the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. If humility does not precede all that we do, all our efforts are meaningless.”
The prideful, ego-centric person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others. The proud think they know better than the collective wisdom of the community. But humility teaches that the world does not revolve around me. Teaches that the needs of others are more important than my own. Allows us to see the dignity and worth in all people, even though who are different.
St. Catheryn of Siena recounts a prayer when God told her, “Remember that I AM and you are not.” God is, and we are not. We recognize something great and glorious in ourselves, but then mistakenly regard it as a credit to ourselves, instead of the One who created us. We tend to think whatever we have is ours. We want to claim ownership of what we have and believe we are responsible for all that we have accomplished. When we allow the ego to become the center of our universe, we develop a sense of entitlement that requires constant attention. Always having to feed the ego, attend to it, and even pamper it. My ego wants, expects and demands. Its appetite is insatiable. The ego makes us forget that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God. In truth, the only thing we have, the only thing we need, is His grace.
Humility IS truth because it is an acknowledgement that God is God and I am not. St. Paul famously told the church in Corinth, “What do you have that you have not received? So why do you boast?” Humility gives us the freedom to let go of our ego and move closer to God. If I want God to increase in my life, I must decrease. Quite literally, my ego must get the hell out of His way.
In the first reading, Sirach speaks to the potential of this wisdom, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” Why might this be true? Because, more often than not, the giver of gifts has an agenda, a purpose or an objective. Many gifts come with strings attached, and the giver of the gift is looking for or expecting something in return. Just like the host who invites the wealthy neighbors to his home for dinner, so they may invite him back or repay him in some other way. These givers of gifts are shallow and insincere. They are not as loved as those who are humble and sincere.
Not all humility is sincere. False humility involves giving or serving others but with strings attached. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. So, how can we tell when our humility is authentic or contrived? Look in the mirror and ask yourself why am I serving? Do I give to and serve others only if I can get something in return, or only when there is a clearly defined quid pro quo? Or, am I giving and serving for my own self-glorification, for the prestige and recognition I receive from others? In other words, are my gifts and my service to others born of a genuine love for God and His creation, or are I merely feeding my ego?
The distinction is critical. When we serve for the wrong reasons, when we serve to feed our egos, we are building a self-image on a house of cards. This is especially dangerous because we deceive ourselves into believing we are all good and pious, like the Pharisees, when in reality, we have become self-righteous and self-important, and begin to believe that we are better than everyone else.
We must gird ourselves to the foot of the cross and humbly marvel at the gift of his Passion and Resurrection. Here is a little wisdom that would be good to remember...the door to eternal life is always slightly shorter than the one who wishes to enter. This way, only he or she who bows in humility can cross its threshold.