22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
I know a lot about humility. I know the definition of the word. I know how to distinguish it from its many synonyms. And I know how to work with it intellectually as a theological concept and virtue. In other words, I can massage just about every aspect of humility into a homily, a paper, a lecture, or a spiritual direction session. Good for me! The hard question though is: am I humble? Do I actually exhibit the virtue of humility as a spiritual good for my growth in holiness? If I say yes, am I boasting? If I say no, am I being falsely modest? Perhaps humility is a virtue best practiced in secret. . .with great courage. St Thomas tells us that humility “conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place” (ST II-II.161.1.ad.2). St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that “[t]he Word speaks of voluntary humility as 'poverty in spirit'”(De beatitudinibus 1). And Our Lord implies that humility opposes self-exaltation, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” What humility is is a reality check on our self-appraisal, a speed-bump on our high-speed chase to perfection: “Go and take the lowest place.”
Take the lowest place. When St. Thomas tells us that humility “conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place,” he's being very careful to make some crucial distinctions. Probably the most important one: the distinction btw self-abasement and praiseworthy self-abasement. Humility is not about self-abasement, a groveling, hatred of the self that leaves you debased and cringing. Humility is about abasing oneself in a praiseworthy manner. Simply put, praiseworthy self-abasement is nothing more than the recognition and acceptance of one's Christian reality: I am both a sinner and a redeemed child of God. I am capable of both great holiness and great evil. I am unworthy of heaven but made worthy in Christ Jesus. Recognizing and accepting this reality – the both/and of being a sinner made worthy – is what it is to abase myself in a praiseworthy manner. I cannot deceive myself into thinking that I am already a saint. Nor can I deceive myself into thinking that I am an unholy worm deserving death. The reality is much more complicated and much more difficult than those easy extremes. The truth is: we are being perfected. Not yet there but on our way. And while on our way, we recognize and accept that our failures and flaws prevent us from raising ourselves above our brothers and sisters.
Jesus' parable of the banquet gives us a window into this thinking about the proper place of humility in the kingdom. Notice in the parable that we are not always relegated to the lowest position. The host might ask us to move up to a higher position. But we can only be moved up if we have first chosen a lower position for ourselves. When we presume – in our pride – to take the highest place, the only direction for us to move when ordered to do so is down. Rather than humble ourselves by recognizing and accepting our unworthiness for the honor, we instead jump pridefully to the place of honor and find ourselves humbled by the host. At the core of this parable is the authority of the Host. He determines who sits where in the order of honor not the guests. If the wedding banquet in the parable is heaven in reality, then it is God Who decides who sits in the places of honor. . .not His guests at the table. If you exalt yourself now, you will be humbled later. However, if you humble yourself now, you will be exalted in heaven.
So, how do we humble ourselves now? Jesus gives us a clue in the parable: “. . .when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” In other words, doing something good for someone who can repay you is less humbling than doing something good for those who can never repay you. Spending your wealth – time, talent, and treasure – freely on those who cannot repay you is the sort of sacrifice that leads to greater humility. Wanting to be “paid back” indicates that you believe that what you have given is truly yours. And that you want your depleted wealth restored. However, spending wealth on those who cannot repay you indicates that you know that all that you have truly belongs to God and that you are merely the steward of His wealth. The sacrifice is not in the “giving over” but in the recognition and acceptance that you are steward of God's wealth not the true owner of the wealth. That sacrifice helps perfect your humility and draws you closer to God. You pull more deeply on the truth that saves: I am wholly dependent on God for everything I have and for everything I am. I am but His instrument.
We could spend hours going over the many ways that we are encouraged by the powers of this world to exalt ourselves above others: class, race, education, martial status, parenthood, economic status, etc. The ways we have of degrading others for our own exaltation are as numerous as the fallen angels. And just as evil. There is but one way to fight and defeat the temptations of self-exaltation: embrace the humility of Christ on the Cross. Scripture tells us that the Son of God emptied himself out to become one of us so that he could die as one of us on the Cross. Theologians sometimes refer to this emptying out as the Son of God “condescending” to become like us. We could just as easily say that he “humbled himself” in order to make our own humility possible. How do we make use of the humility he made possible? We receive into our own hearts and minds his motivation for humbling himself – he loved us as his own and died for us so that we might live. That's sacrificial love. Love that sacrifices self for another. And there is no greater humility to be found. When the powers of this world tempt us to exalt ourselves at the expense of our rich/poor, black/white, Republican/Democrat, educated/uneducated neighbors, bring to your heart and mind the image of Christ on his Cross. Remember that he – the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – humbled himself to become one of us and to die as one of us so that we might live. That WE – all of us – might live.
It is Devil's work to divide us into rich and poor, white and black, upper and lower classes. It's Christ's work to save us all in his one act of sacrificial love on the Cross. And it's our work to be his instruments in this fallen world. Give when you cannot be repaid. Choose the lowest place.
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