Thursday, September 5, 2013
Taking the Lowest Place
From the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to greet the world with a simple “Good Evening”, everyone was touched by his gentle manner and openness. It became clear to all that he would be a pope unlike any other we have seen probably since Saint Peter himself when, after his election, he insisted on personally paying the bill at the hotel he was staying at. Later on, the world looked on in amazement as he chose not to live in the papal apartment overlooking Saint Peter’s Square but decided instead to live in a sparse room in the Vatican’s guest house. At one of his first audiences, when the crowds were chanting his name, “Francesco! Francesco!”, he quieted them and told them instead to cry out, “Jesus! Jesus!”
In the time that he has served as Bishop of Rome, he has shown the Church and the whole world a new type of leadership. It is not based on pomp and ceremony but on simplicity and sincerity. It is not based on influence and power but on love and humility. No matter what one thinks of the Catholic Church and her teachings, everyone has taken notice of our Holy Father because he insists on being treated as no more than a brother and fellow traveler on this Earth.
The example of Pope Francis is a clear reflection of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel. People are not inspired by pride and arrogance. They are not moved by displays of influence and opulent shows of power. Rather, society is most impressed with humility. It is the one who is comfortable around people, who is as attentive to the poor as he is to the rich, who inspires confidence and hope in others. As we read in today’s first reading, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Humility, above all else, is the mark of a great person and an effective leader.
What is humility and how can we display it in our attitudes and behavior? It is precisely this question which Jesus answers for us in today’s gospel.
First of all, humility is being willing to be content with a lower place at the table than we think we deserve. It is natural for us to want to be recognized for our hard work and accomplishments. We want everyone to know how important we are. Somehow we think that being esteemed by others will make us feel good about ourselves.
However, Jesus shows us another way. He asks us to be content with less than we think we deserve. He challenges us to forgo the pride that comes from being recognized by others and seek instead the lowest place at the table. It means not always insisting that our hard work be acknowledged. It means letting someone else take the credit for our accomplishments. And it means accepting criticism even when we feel it is undeserved.
Why would we want to do such a thing? Because we trust God. We trust that the truth will make itself known in due course. As Jesus teaches us, it is better for others to point out the good we do than for us to brag about it. When we choose humility, when we take a lower place at the table, others will notice and will call us to a higher place. Even if they do not, God will notice and reward us beyond anything the most powerful man or woman on earth could give us.
Secondly, humility means associating with those who are lowly. It means giving to those who cannot repay us and spending time with those who can sometimes drain us of our energy and resources. Because they do not give us anything in return, we can expect to be rewarded by God who is the Father of the poor and needy and who calls us to love all our brothers and sisters.
Our world can be a funny place. If someone rich and famous were to knock on our door, we would not hesitate to welcome him into our home, to treat him to the most sumptuous meal we could make and give him all the time they would ask of us. However, if someone truly needy were to knock on our door in search of even just a little comfort, we would probably not let him past the threshold of our home. We are so willing to give to those who have more than enough and refuse even the smallest amount of our time, energy and money to those who truly need it.
Jesus is calling us to act as He did. He was as much at home with the poor and with sinners as He was with the wealthy and the righteous. In fact, rather than seek out honors and recognition, He sought out the sick. Those who were cast out of respectable society were precisely the ones He was sent to save. If we want a seat at the table next to Jesus, then we will have to go to the lowest place. It we want to be among those whom Jesus seeks out and chooses to comfort and heal, then we must be among the poor, the outcast and the disabled.
Jesus teaches us that humility consists of being comfortable in the lowest place and associating with those who have nothing to give us. This is precisely how Jesus acted. Though His rightful place was in heaven, He was content to be born into poverty and walk among us as a man. Though He was the most powerful man who ever lived, He traveled among sinners, the poor and the sick. If Jesus can be humble, then what right do we have to be proud and arrogant? If Jesus can take the lowest place, then what right do we have to claim the highest place?
We gather today around this table, the altar where Jesus’ Body and Blood will be offered to us. We are saints and sinners, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. All of us have the same place at the table no matter what the circumstances of our life are. Here we witness and celebrate the God who humbled Himself to save us. Here we are challenged to go out and do the same until all people are gathered together in the great banquet of our Father’s Heavenly Kingdom.