The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Sirach 3:17-18,20,28-29   +   Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24   +   Luke 14:1,7-14
August 28, 2016

“Humble yourself the more, the greater you are….”

In the Catechism’s discussion of the Tenth Commandment—forbidding the coveting of thy neighbor’s goods—humility is mentioned.  You might wonder what humility has to do with not coveting thy neighbor’s goods.  To illustrate the connection, the Catechism quotes the fourth-century saint Gregory of Nyssa.

In one of St. Gregory’s writings, titled “On Blessedness”, he states that Jesus:

“speaks of voluntary humility as ‘poverty in spirit’; the Apostle [Paul] gives an example of God’s poverty when he says:  ‘For your sakes He became poor.’”[1]

One of the most important points that St. Gregory makes here is that humility is a kind of poverty.  This is key to pondering today’s Scriptures:  humility is a kind of poverty.

As you know, Jesus speaks about this “poverty in spirit” in the very first sentence of His Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount takes up 3 out of the 28 chapters of St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel.  In the sermon’s very first verse Jesus declares that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”[2]

Listen again to the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa.  He states that Jesus:

“speaks of voluntary humility as ‘poverty in spirit’; the Apostle [Paul] gives an example of God’s poverty when he says:  ‘For your sakes He became poor.’

In this quote of St. Gregory there are two points to help us focus on today’s Scriptures.

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The first point is to recognize the importance of that word “voluntary”.  Jesus speaks of “voluntary humility” as being poverty of spirit.  We need to remember that there are two kinds of humility:  voluntary and involuntary.  In other words, there’s the kind of humility that we freely choose, and then there’s the kind of humility that’s forced upon us.  Poverty in spirit is not the kind of humility that’s forced upon us.  Poverty in spirit is only the kind of humility that we freely choose.  In fact, that’s the goal that Jesus is driving us toward in today’s parable:  poverty in spirit, which is voluntary humility.

In today’s Gospel passage, “Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees”.  It’s interesting:  at this home, everyone is observing everyone else.  The evangelist tells us that, on the one hand, “the people there were observing [Jesus] carefully”.  But on the other hand, Jesus tells His parable “to those who had been invited” because Jesus had noticed “how they were choosing the places of honor at the table”.  They were choosing, not humility, but self-promotion.

So we need to back up for a minute, and realize that this was no Sunday dinner with everyone wearing jeans and T-shirts.  It was not informal.  In modern terms, this dinner was a “black tie” event:  a meal of great formality, to which the cream of society had been invited.  Pharisees, of course, were persons of high rank in Jewish society, so it was no small thing for Jesus to have been invited to this supper by a leading Pharisee.

In fact, Jesus, being who He was, would have stuck out like a sore thumb.  We might wonder how He even got invited.  Had the leading Pharisee invited Jesus to make Jesus’ life more difficult:  maybe to embarrass Jesus by showing that He was nothing more than a hick from the sticks?  Or was the leading Pharisee who invited Him someone like Nicodemus, sympathetic to Jesus and His mission?  The evangelist doesn’t tell us the motive of that leading Pharisee.  Instead, the evangelist focuses on the motive of those invited, who scramble for “the places of honor at the table”, and on Jesus’ motive in inviting them to the virtue of humility.

Within Jesus’ parable, He illustrates how there are two kinds of humility.  Jesus begins by describing the kind of humility that’s forced upon oneself.  Jesus describes someone seating himself “in the place of honor, and then being forced by the host to embarrass himself by moving down to “the lowest place”.  This is what’s called “humble pie”:  involuntary humility.  Life serves up lots of helpings of humble pie.  This is not the humility that Jesus wants us to cultivate.  This is not the humility that can be called “poverty of spirit.”  This kind of humility originates in pride, and results in a fall.

But then, Jesus describes the kind of humility that originates in God.  What does Jesus tell us to do?  “[T]ake the lowest place[,] so that when the host comes to you[,] he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’”  In other words, practice the virtue of voluntary humility.  Don’t get frustrated with how often life serves you “humble pie”.  Take the initiative:  practice the virtue of voluntary humility, and you’ll find yourself eating much less.

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Before considering the second point that St. Gregory makes about humility in that quote from the Catechism, let me share some insights from a more contemporary teacher of the Catholic Faith.  He was a French Dominican priest who died in the year 1964.  He taught theology in Rome for many years, and in fact, he directed the doctoral research of a young priest from Poland by the name of Karol Wojtyla.  That French Dominican was Father Reginald Garrigou-Langrange.

Within a set of spiritual conferences that Father Reginald preached to fellow Dominicans, one conference is about humility.  He starts by pointing out very plainly that throughout “the entire Christian tradition [humility] has been considered the foundation of the spiritual life.”  Then he uses an illustration to drive this point home, explaining that “humility has been compared to the foundation that must be excavated in order to construct a building.  The [taller] the desired building, the deeper the foundation has to be.”[3]  So with that illustration in mind, we realize that if God desires to build each of us into a saint, our foundation in humility has to be profoundly deep.

Father Reginald then looks at the kind of actions that demonstrate humility before God.  In particular, he describes a distinctive action that sums up what humility is about:  namely, the action of literally bowing down to the ground.  Actually, this is where the word “humility” comes from.  The English word “humility” comes from the Latin noun “humus”, meaning ground, soil, earth.[4]

Obviously this evokes the creation of Adam in the Book of Genesis, and also what the priest says on Ash Wednesday as he traces the Sign of the Cross on your forehead:  “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  You might consider memorizing that phrase, and saying it to yourself each night as part of your examination of conscience, along with your other night prayers:  “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

At the same time that you say these words of humility, you might carry out that action of humility:  bowing down to the ground.  Those words and action would be a good addition to your night prayers.  Or you might want instead to say those words, and carry out that action of bowing down to the ground, first thing in the morning after waking up.

Father Reginald, however, offers a few more points about God’s work as Creator.  As you know from religion class, when God created the angels, some of the angels in their pride rejected God, while the rest of the angels in humility accepted God.  At the head of the holy angels is Saint Michael.

In every parish I go to, I eventually make sure that all the altar servers know the Prayer to St. Michael, and we pray it before Holy Mass.  Eventually I get a large statue of St. Michael, and we face it when praying to him.  It’s important to remember, though, what the name “Michael” literally means.  Its meaning sums up his role at the head of the holy angels.  The name “Michael” is actually a question:  it literally means “Who is like God?”  Each time you trespass against God’s law, you answer that question by saying, “I am.”  Humility roots the true answer to the question ‘who is like God’ into our hearts, minds and souls.

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In his writing titled “On Blessedness”, St. Gregory of Nyssa states that Jesus:

“speaks of voluntary humility as ‘poverty in spirit’; the Apostle [Paul] gives an example of God’s poverty when he says:  ‘For your sakes He became poor.’

If we understand the need to practice humility voluntarily, we still have a problem.  Namely, it’s very difficult to do.  As in Jesus’ parable, there’s often embarrassment connected to acting humbly.  To take the initiative of voluntary humility is difficult.  To humble oneself before, not only God, but also others is difficult.  How can we overcome the difficulties connected with acting humbly?

The answer, of course, is Jesus.  But not just following His example.  Yes, the Apostle Paul gives us an example of God’s own voluntary poverty when Paul says to the Corinthians:  “For your sakes [Jesus] became poor.”  That is to say, God the Son left the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven, and took on our frail human nature.  In terms of His human life, this was Jesus’ first act of voluntary humility.

But of course the reason that Jesus entered our sinful world was to offer His Body and Blood, soul and divinity for us on Calvary.  In other words, Jesus gave us two great examples of humility:  being conceived at the Annunciation, and dying on Calvary; becoming human, and offering His humanity on the Cross.  Two profound acts of humility.  But how could you or I possibly be strong enough to imitate such examples?

Maybe we ought to recall the rest of that verse from Second Corinthians that St. Gregory of Nyssa quotes.  Here’s the entire verse:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ[:]  that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.”

It’s not the example of Jesus’ poverty that makes you rich.  It’s by entering into Jesus’ life—His Body and Blood, soul and divinity—that you become rich in God’s grace.  Only this grace can make you strong enough to practice the virtue of humility on a par with Jesus’ own humility.

In today’s First Reading, Sirach counsels you to “[h]umble yourself the more, the greater you are.  Through Baptism, you are a child of God.  So indeed you are.  That is a profoundly great vocation:  a demanding one.  To be faithful to that vocation, your humility must be the humility of God’s only-begotten Son.  Thanks be to God, He has called His children to the head of the Banquet Table, to be strengthened by Jesus’ own life.  Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church 2546, quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa, De Beatitudinibus 1; cf. 2 Cor 8:9.

[2] Matthew 5:3.

[3] Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Knowing the Love of God (DeKalb, Ill.: Lighthouse Catholic Media, 2015), 79.

[4] Ibid., 80.