22nd Sunday 2019
Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20, 28-29; Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Every so often it happens that there is a single word which seems to encapsulate the Mass readings. I would suggest that today is such an occasion, and that the key word is “humility”. The passage from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) contains both “humbly” and “the humble”, while the concept of humility is contained in Jesus’ instruction to take the lowest place, and to invite the outsider to one’s own parties.
What do we mean by humility? As I have mentioned before, it is connected to the Latin word “humus” meaning “soil” or “ground” , and involves being “grounded”—not as children are “grounded” when confined to barracks (the modern equivalent of a clip around the ear or a kick up the backside)—but in the sense of “having our feet on the ground”.
This entails recognition of our weaknesses and limitations, but also of our strengths. It means recognising our status in relation both to God and to our neighbour, realising both that we are dependent upon God AND that we are His beloved sons and daughters: seeing our neighbours as our brothers and sisters beloved by God, and recognising the beauty of each of them as a child of God.
During pastoral studies in the seminary, I remember examining Transactional Analysis, of which the guiding principle is “I’m OK, you’re OK” as distinct from the various other options (“I’m OK, you’re not OK;” “I’m not OK, you’re not OK; “I’m not OK; you’re OK”). Genuine humility involves recognising the intrinsic goodness both of yourself and of the other person, and being at ease with that.
This is light years away from the false humility of self-abasement, the cringing mock servility of Uriah Heep, who was proud of his humility, a humility which masked a devious, plotting nature. That sort of false humility is often a cover for a loathing of, or contempt for, the other person, as brought out in the old Jewish story of the rabbi, the cantor, and the synagogue cleaner.
The rabbi stood at the front of the synagogue, and beat his breast, exclaiming “I am nothing, I am nothing.” Next to him stood the cantor, who beat his breast, exclaiming “I am nothing, I am nothing,”. And at the back stood the little cleaner, who beat his breast, and exclaimed “I am nothing, I am nothing.” And the rabbi turned to the cantor and said “Just look who thinks he is nothing.” For rabbi, cantor, and cleaner, read priest...........
We can guarantee that this mythical rabbi would not have invited the synagogue cleaner to his party, since his professed humility scarcely disguised a pride in himself and a contempt for others. Only a genuine humility, based on an honest assessment of our standing before God, enables us to recognise the intrinsic worth of every other person and to realise that s/he is well worthy of an invitation.
I remember a school group of 15-16 year olds attending a residential week at the Diocesan Youth Centre at Castlerigg Manor. In the group was a girl who stuck out like a sore thumb. She was plain, not very bright, and socially inept. Shortly after they had returned home, I received a letter from one of her room-mates from the week, who, among other things, mentioned how, during the week, she had come to recognise the good qualities in this particular lass. How much that owed to our input, I have no idea, but I suspect that, when they returned to school, there would have been far more involvement of this girl in their plans and activities. I hope that they may even have invited her to their parties.
So what about us? What is the state of our humility? How do we stand before God, and how do we regard other people? Are we free from both cringing and contempt? Do we recognise our own God-given worth, and that of others? And whom do we invite to our parties?