Humble yourselves the more, the greater you are.
In today’s gospel, Jesus warns us not to seize the place of honor at a banquet. That place may have been reserved for a VIP. If so, we will have to pay for our vanity by being sent to a lower table.
Is ambition always out of place? So long as the ambitious person is also highly qualified, little harm is done. Still, he who is promoted simply because of his merits will always win the greater admiration.
General Omar Bradley was one of the outstanding American officers in World War II. For several years before his death, he had the rare distinction of being a permanent five-star general. But as he stated in a 1971 interview that appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, all his promotions had come unsought.
Bradley was a West Point graduate, a military man by profession, but as he always insisted, not a militarist. (He was noted for his compassion.) Reflecting on his advances in rank, he said, “I never thought about promotions. I tried to do my job a little better than was expected of me, to study a little harder than was expected of me.” Thus, he rose not because of ambition, but because of demonstrated talent.
George Washington, in his day, was also chosen as general and president because he was obviously the best man for both jobs. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed (without comment) a congressional law designating Washington posthumously as a six -star general. The legislator who presented the bill had the good intention of wanting to keep the Father of His Country permanently first among American generals. But the law was a bit silly. Washington’s position was already secure. As one dissident congressman said, “This is like the pope making Christ a cardinal!”
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q439: If my talents are better than someone else, should I not seek higher honors?
The gospel today (Luke 14:1,7-14) is not about applying for ‘higher job positions’ that are open for those with certain talents. Instead, it is about the vice of self-promotion. This vice usually begins at the mirror and continues at times throughout the day, such as coffee break time at work, or phone gossip. It usually takes two forms: speaking negatively about someone else (implying that “I” am better), and exaggerating my own importance. Is it possible that many of the “back problems” that plague certain Americans stem from their own straining to pat themselves on the back all the time? We want others to know how good we are at something, or how well we did a special task.
In Jesus’ time, the individuals living in the Judean society and culture were in a constant struggle for more “personal honor,” but always at the expense of someone else. One example is reflected in today’s gospel. It shows people jockeying for the best places at a banquet – not so subtly, either, because it caught Jesus’ attention. By their own actions of “self-promotion” they were patting themselves on the back, in effect claiming they were “better” than those located farther down the feeding trough.
When Jesus comments on this banquet scenario, he is not giving a lesson in table manners. Notice that he tells a parable, meaning there is a specific point he is going to be making. In this case, he is contrasting the virtue of Humility with the vice of Pride. The lesson is about the great danger in presuming (and acting on that presumption) that we are “better” than someone else; the parable calls us to avoid the vice of self-promotion. The Book of Proverbs reminds us that pride precedes the disaster and the fall (16:18), and our First Reading from Sirach stresses the need for great humility (Sir 3:17-20,28-29). There is no need for self-promotion through tooting your own horn. If you are deserving of honors, your responsible actions will be noticed and given recognition as they deserve.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! “The exercise of humility towards our neighbor is not a reverence of that nature, but to the gifts of God within that nature” (Archbishop Ullathorne on Humility). Our actions that matter are those that are self-giving, rather than self-promoting. Pope John Paul II taught us that each of us needs to promote the dignity of every human being, especially the disadvantaged (CCC #1929, 1932); we are equal with our brothers and sisters in the eyes of God, not above them.
Q595: Why does Jesus think it is wrong to be honored at a festive occasion?
Being honored is not the issue in today’s gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14). What is at issue is the inordinate desire to be honored, at the expense of others! Jesus is teaching some basic fundamentals about the responsibility of all people to reflect the image of God with which they were created.
To be made in the image of God means that our soul has three special elements: an Intellect that gives us the potential to think in spiritual ways; a Will that gives us the potential to choose the good; and third, the ability to live in relationships of chaste love – giving freely and unconditionally the love that God gave us, modeling the love within the Holy Trinity.
The guests at the Pharisee’s house in today’s gospel were jockeying for positions of honor; and in that honor-and-shame society, to take a seat at the table closer to the host meant that it was always at the expense of someone else. To make his point, Jesus tells everyone a parable about humility – seeking out the lower place, not the place of honor. Or if you are the host, not being selfish with invitations that are self-serving since they seek payback, but rather inviting those who will not be forced to return the favor. Those who cannot return the favor will at least be able to give what they have – thanksgiving, gratitude, and unconditional love freely given – the very dynamic of the life within the Holy Trinity.
There is indeed one higher position that the Lord wants us to take, by his invitation. Each one of us is asked to come to the table of the Eucharist, where every seat is equal in honor and equal in nearness to our host, Jesus, the Son of God!
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Being the image of God gives us dignity, and the capability of self-knowledge, self-possession, and of freely giving ourselves and entering into communion with God and with all other humans (CCC 357). The vocation of each one of us is to show forth this image of God and enrich each other out of real love (CCC 1877, 1937).
Whoever Exalts Himself Will be Humbled
Jesus lived in a status obsessed society. Money was important largely because it enabled you to do things that gave you higher status. How you stood in the eyes of your neighbors was of tremendous importance. Money could enable you to build a public monument engraved with your name. A patron could be generous to his inferiors, but he expected as something in return, public acclamation at the very least. Jesus referred to this when he condemned the religious leaders of his day for doing their good deeds with ostentatious behavior.
Jesus turns the accepted social practices upside down: invite the poor, the blind, the lame, the folks who can give you nothing in return. Even their acclaim would give you no social status. Give of yourself with out expectation of getting anything in return. True humility is the way to seek greater honor, not from the social elite but from the one whose opinion really counts, God.
Lord, all that we have and all that we are is your gift to us. Help us to remember that fact.