Luke 14:1, 7-11
This story is reminiscent of another Gospel story, when Jesus found his disciples arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God (see Luke 9:46-48 or Mark 9:33-37). He realized that they had not yet understood the import of his message: that what is valued and sought after in the world is not what is most prized in the kingdom of God. On that occasion he taught them, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The aim of life in the kingdom was not self-exaltation, but self-offering, the laying down of one’s life in service to God and to one’s neighbor.
Here we see a similar situation – not among Jesus’ disciples, but among the dinner guests at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus notices them seeking the places of honor, motivated no doubt by the desire to be noticed and deemed important by the other guests. He tells them that when they attend such a banquet, they should deliberately choose the lowest place, because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11).
Jesus both teaches this way of “downward mobility” and models it himself. He invites us to learn from him, because he is “gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). He comes to us as one who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). He takes up the servant’s towel and basin to wash his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, saying to them, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15).
So it is not surprising that he should direct us towards the lowest place. He values humility. He teaches humility. He embodies humility. He shows us the beauty of the downward path, a path that leads to life and peace and to true greatness.
What shall we say about humility? First, we must understand what it is – and what it isn’t. “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts,” writes William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, “It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”
Humility is not about self-abasement. Rather it is about living into the truth of who we are, recognizing both our gifts and our shortcomings, our abilities and our limitations, our righteousness and our sinfulness. Charles Spurgeon, the great evangelical preacher, said, “Humility is to make a right estimate of oneself.” Making a right estimate of ourselves involves appreciating the natural gifts that have been given to us by God, but also realizing that we are objects and beneficiaries of God’s undeserved, redeeming love. The humble person knows he cannot exalt himself, because all that he has and all that he is proceeds solely from God’s generous love.
Persons who possess the gift of humility are willing to learn from others. They recognize and respect “the dignity of every human being” and recognize their oneness with them. They show honor even to the lowliest, even to those who oppose them, even to their enemies. They are unwilling to judge anyone.
If we are waiting for this virtue to mature in us, here are three things we can put into practice:
- First, we can open our minds and hearts to see the image of God in every person; every person we meet has something to teach us.
- Second, we can refuse to judge others, even when we are convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. This does not mean we must sacrifice our own opinion, but simply that we must allow for differing views without disrespecting those who hold those views.
- And finally, we can consciously and deliberately choose the servant’s role, contenting ourselves with the lowest rather than the highest place, and humbling ourselves in imitation of our Lord.
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