Sunday, August 29, 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Oh Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble…

Dear sisters and brothers, as sometimes happens, our readings today remind me of a song. It’s an old country number by Mac Davis. And the chorus goes like this:

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a hell of a man. Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble but I’m doing the best that I can.

Don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. Of course I know that I’m far from perfect in every way. And I’m definitely not getting better looking each day. But, even with all my flaws, I have to agree with Mac Davis that it is truly hard to be humble. Don’t you think so?

For one thing, it’s difficult to know what exactly it means to be humble. What at first looks like humility can often turn out to be something very different. For example, if I am unable to accept a genuine compliment because I don’t think very highly of myself, that’s not humility. It’s just low self-esteem. And neither is it true humility either, if I criticize myself on purpose, just so I can hear others disagree and tell me how wonderful I am. Humility is not a hook that I can use to fish for flattery. Humility is not about falsehood. It’s about the truth.

Even so, our readings remind us that humility has to do with lowering ourselves in some way. Humility involves lowering ourselves by first recognizing that all the good things in our lives are blessings from a generous and loving God. As the first reading reminds us: humble yourselves the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. And not only does humility involve lowering ourselves before God, it also involves lowering ourselves before others. As Jesus tells his listeners in the gospel today, to be humble means to be willing to take the lowest place. And this is far from an easy thing to do, especially today, when it often seems that our very survival depends on our being able and willing to fight tooth and nail for the highest places. And what does it mean for me to take the lowest place if I am already unemployed, with a family to feed? Does it mean that I should somehow do less than my best to secure a job?

Which leads us to a second reason why I think it’s hard to be humble. It’s hard not just to know what humility is. It’s also hard to figure out when exactly to be humble. It’s difficult to know when we should lower ourselves before others. Consider, for example, what Jesus does in the gospel. Notice how several verses are missing from our reading, which jumps from verse 1 to verse 7. In verses 2 to 6, a man appears who has a sickness called dropsy. And Jesus challenges those with him at table: Should he heal this man even though it is a Sabbath day? Everybody keeps silent, probably because they think that it is unlawful to do so. Still, Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way. Was Jesus being humble? Was he lowering himself? Not before the Pharisees he wasn’t. But Jesus stood up to the Pharisees only so that he could lower himself before the one who needed healing. He challenged the first in order to show compassion to the second. And by doing this, Jesus teaches us that there is a right time and a wrong time to lower ourselves. The difficulty lies in distinguishing one from the other.

And, in order to do this, in order to know when is the right time to lower ourselves, it is important for us to face a third difficulty. Not only must we consider what humility means and when we should be humble, we also have to ask ourselves why we need to be humble. Why should we even bother to lower ourselves before others? Why not just rush for the highest places like everybody else?

It may at first appear that our readings are proposing a purely practical answer to this question. Why should we lower ourselves before God? According to the first reading, it is so that God will show us favor. And why should we take the lowest place before people? According to the gospel parable, it appears that it is only so that we can then be raised to the place of honor. But is this true humility? Or does it not resemble the kind of tactic used by the person who criticizes himself in order to fish for compliments from others? Consider also what Jesus tells us in the second half of today’s gospel. When we hold a lunch or dinner, we are to invite those who cannot invite us back – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind? Why? According to Jesus, we will be repaid at the resurrection. But is this the only reason why we should invite all these people? Just so that we can be repaid? Is there no other reason to be humble, no other reason to lower ourselves?

Our readings contain a deeper reason. Notice, for example, what we heard in our second reading. Here, the writer invites us to compare two different appearances of God. The first is God’s appearance to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. The second is to us on Mount Zion. In both cases God lowers God’s self in order to show mercy to the people. But notice how the second lowering far exceeds the first. In the first, God spoke in a voice that still frightened the people, such that they begged that no message be further addressed to them. Then, in the second, God speaks in a different, far more accessible, far more approachable voice. God addresses us in the blood of Christ the Son, which speaks more eloquently even than the blood of Abel. This is the same blood of which we will partake at this Eucharist, the blood that sings of a love more powerful even than death. What then do we find here in this reading, sisters and brothers, if not a moving description of a humble God? One who is willing to lower God’s self even to the extent of shedding blood upon a Cross. And the reason why God does this is to raise us up. In the words of the response to the psalm: by lowering God’s self, God has made a home for the poor. Here, sisters and brothers, we find the deeper answer to our question. Why should we be humble? Why should we lower ourselves? We do so for no reason other than that this is what our God has done and continues to do for us. Like children who love nothing better than to imitate their parents, we are called to humility because we are sons and daughters of a humble God.

Sisters and brothers, it is indeed hard to be humble. But are we truly doing the best that we can?

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