Life is good at humbling us.
Just when we think we are the best, someone better comes along. Just when we think we have mastered our jobs, an issue comes up that makes us look incompetent. Just when we think we are mature in our faith, we cave into a temptation which leaves us feeling empty and bewildered.
Many times when we have felt humiliated, we replace that wounded pride with bitterness. Envy of others fills the space left behind by our deflated egos. To make up for our feelings of inadequacy, we become more competitive and determined to see others fail as well.
However, Jesus teaches us to look at our past and present failures in a different way. Rather than let them be causes for shame and embarrassment, we should be thankful for them. Because of our mistakes, we can abandon the pretense of being perfect. We learn that the people who love us are willing to forgive and to continue to love us despite our imperfections. Most especially, our failures teach us to be patient with and compassionate toward those who are struggling.
Humility is at the root of what it means to be a mature, spiritual person. It means knowing that only God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Through humility, we break out of a view of life and the world that is centered on ourselves and our needs and begin to concern ourselves with the needs of others. It makes us capable of really listening to others and learning from them. Most especially, it makes us capable of listening to God. Humility is the soil in which God can plant the seed of faith.
The opposite of humility is pride. When we are ruled by pride, we want to be at the center of the universe. If someone calls into question something we have done or said, we say to ourselves, “How dare they!”. And when someone does not treat us the way we think we deserve to be, we say to ourselves, “Don’t you know who I am?!” Pride makes us look at others as pawns to be used to get our way or as obstacles to getting what we want. Pride blinds us to others and their feelings. Most especially, pride gives us a spirit of entitlement making it impossible for us to receive grace which comes to us as an undeserved gift.
We have to be careful when reading this Sunday's gospel not to interpret it as an etiquette lesson. It is not meant to teach us how we should act at a dinner party or how we should arrange tables when we invite others over. Rather, Luke calls Jesus' words a "parable" because they give us insight into how God acts. God lifts up those who are lowly. It is when we have hit bottom that God can finally meet us and reach out to us. It is when we are at our lowest that we finally realize that we do not have all the answers. At that point, we can finally reach up to take God’s hand which has been stretched out to us all along.
It is when we are at our lowest that we see how quickly we can lose the esteem of others. When we are down, we are surprised by how quickly people can turn on us and abandon us. At that point, we see how irreplaceable the love of God is. He is at our side whether we are winning or losing. His friendship is offered to us in good times and in bad. Whatever sins we have committed, he is ready to welcome us back and forgive us. No matter what we may have done, there is never a point at which God says he is tired of us and gives up on us. There is no limit to God’s loving care for us.
So at those times when we look like idiots in front of others or something happens to make us the subject of gossip, before we clench our fists in rage or bury our faces in shame, we have to first thank God for the opportunity to know what it is like to be humbled. We have to remember those who are humbled every day by their poverty or sickness. And we have to beg God that peace, joy and forgiveness may flood in where pride, self-assurance and contempt once held their ground in our hearts.
In that way, we can take our place at the banquet which is the Eucharist. This Sunday's second reading from the letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus' blood more eloquent than the blood of Abel. In the book of Genesis, Cain killed his brother, Abel, because he was jealous of him. Abel's blood called out to God for justice, and so Cain was cursed and ostracized. Jesus' blood, however, was shed on the cross out of love for us. It calls out to God for mercy so we may be forgiven and restored to intimacy with him. However, we cannot reach out for mercy if we think we have the power to be good on our own or if we have failed to be merciful with others.
Jesus is the greatest example of humility. Though he is the Son of God, he was willing to become a man like us. He was willing to experience the pain that goes along with being human. He was willing to be mocked and ridiculed. He was willing to give his life up so that we could live. If Jesus is so humble, then why can we also not be humble? At the cross, we can lay down our need to be the best, our need to know it all and our spirit of entitlement. When we can become as comfortable in the lowest seat as we would be at the highest place, then God can give us a place of honor. Then we can experience the power of God at work in our lives which far surpasses any honors or titles this world can bestow on us.