August 29, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) Reading II (Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a)
Gospel (St. Luke 14:1, 7-14)
In the readings today, we hear about one of the most important of all of the virtues and, yet, one of the least desired. It is the virtue of humility. Humility is something which when we see it in another person we find exceedingly attractive. We recognize that a humble person is someone whom we want to be like and, yet, at the same time, when it comes to actually wanting to be humble – doing the work to become humble – most of us are completely unwilling to even make an attempt. The reason for this is because we cannot make ourselves humble. It is something that has to happen to us. It is a gift that Our Lord gives to us and the only way that we are going to be humble is by being humbled, that is, through humiliation. Since none of us is particularly appreciative of being humiliated we usually do everything we can to avoid it. Even when God, in His mercy, lowers the boom on us and gives us some grand humiliation our pride usually rises up in equally grand form to try to minimize what we would consider to be the damage. Therefore, what we really obtain from the gift that God is giving to us is something that is exceedingly minimal because we really do not want it. That is a very difficult thing because we have to remember that humility and charity are completely connected. Our Lord has commanded us to love. It is the very purpose of our creation and it is the only way we are ever going to be fulfilled. All of us want to love and we want to be loved. However, the depth of our humility is going to be equal to the height of our charity, and the humility has to come first. And so, it is not a matter that we are really going to be able to practice and live the virtue of charity unless we practice and live the virtue of humility. We need to ask God to give us humility.
Now, we also have to keep in mind that when we ask Him that, in His mercy, He will give it to us. It means that we are going to be leveled to the dust. It means that we are going to be dragged through the mud; that we are going to be rejected, and we are going to be ridiculed. Are we willing to do that? All we have to do is look at Him. Saint Paul tells us, in his Letter to the Philippians, that Our Lord humbled Himself taking the form of a slave and being obedient even unto death on the Cross. Humility was not something that He was opposed to. He who is Almighty God, exalted above all, has humbled Himself to become the servant of all, lowering Himself to the point of doing things that not even a slave in Israel could be required to do when He washed the feet of His disciples. He humbled Himself to be lower than every other person on the face of the earth. When we look at how He gives Himself to us now, it is in the form of a piece of bread. You can ask yourself if you would be willing to humble yourself to that level. You who are only a human person would probably not be willing to humble yourself to be completely passive in the Eucharist in the form of a piece of bread. But it is not too humble for God because that is what He has chosen to do for us.
In the first reading, in the Book of Sirach, we are told that if we want to find favor with God we need to be humble, and the greater the humility the greater the favor that we are going to have with God. It is the only way. Scripture tells us that God draws near to the humble, but the haughty He knows from afar. He does not let them get close and they do not want to get close. That is quite a problem for us because for most of us our humility is pretty small but our pride is huge. We do not even like to admit that. In case you are sitting there right now thinking, “Well, thankfully, I am pretty humble,” that is the first proof that you are not. Humility is one of those virtues that you will never be able to see within your own self. So if you think that you are humble, clearly you are not. All that you can do is apply to yourself that adage, “I am really proud of my humility,” which, needless to say, is quite an oxymoron. However, all that we can do is to try to pray for the gift of humility. A truly humble person will never recognize it in himself. Always what he will see is just how much pride is there.
Therefore, if you can look at yourself and see how much pride is present within yourself, at least you are on the right track. But, then, we have to work to get rid of the pride and we really need to ask ourselves if we really want to do that. How committed are we to removing pride from our lives? We realize that pride is the root of every single sin that we commit, every last one of them. Another synonym for pride is “selfishness.” Every single sin we commit is a selfish act. It is a failure to love, and love is being selfless. So the real question is, do we want to overcome ourselves? Our Lord has made it clear that the only way we are going to save our lives is to lose them. We have to die to self but that, again, is the opposite of what our society tells us. It is a problem for us right from the beginning. Just look at a baby, as incredible and wonderful as these little people are, and as immensely loveable as they are, they are the most selfish creatures on the face of the earth. They have to be since it is the only way that they survive. Unfortunately, in our society, we never seem to overcome that. It is encouraged in us, in fact. However, the goal of the Christian life is for us, who come into this world as the most selfish of all beings, to overcome that; to learn exactly the opposite; to become the most selfless of beings.
Now, in order to help us to be able to understand just how important this is, and the call that Our Lord has given to us, we can begin by looking at the second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews. He is comparing the two covenants – the old and the new – in their formation. He tells us that we have not drawn near to what can be seen or touched, that is, to Mount Sinai where the old covenant was given to Moses. When the old covenant was given, it was given in majesty. There were peals of thunder and there was lightening. There were earthquakes and all of the other things that were going on at Mount Sinai. And the voice of God that was heard terrified the people so that they actually went and begged Moses that they would never hear the voice of God again. “Have Him speak to you,” they said, “and then you tell us what He said.” They did not want to hear God’s voice. What a tragedy. But you, Saint Paul tells us, you draw near to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to the gathering of all of the angels, to the first-born enrolled in heaven, to God Himself, to Jesus, to the souls of the just, to the Blood which speaks more eloquently than the blood of Abel. That is what God is inviting you to.
If you have drawn near to Mount Zion, then you must understand what that means. Mount Zion is where Jerusalem is. It is where Calvary is. If you have drawn near to Mount Zion in the city of the living God it is to be drawn near to the Cross of Our Lord, to be united with Him on His Cross, to be humbled with Him. And, the humility, of which Our Lord makes very clear in the gospel reading today, of that which He is instructing the Pharisee who invited him to the dinner and all of his guests, can be applied to what He Himself has done. He told the guests not to look for the place of honor but to look at what He has done for us. He took the lowest place and, of course, is exalted above all. But you are united to Jesus. You are a member of Jesus Christ. Your soul is the bride of Christ and so He talks about being invited to a wedding banquet. You have been invited. He says not to look for the place of honor at the wedding banquet and if you take the lowest place you will be exalted. Look at what He has done for you! He has united your soul to Himself. He has exalted you. But, therefore, it means that you have to be willing to humble yourself. If you are going to love the Bridegroom of your soul the only way to love is to be humble. That is a requirement on our part. He will take care of the exaltation. We have to take care of trying and praying for humility.
More than that, He tells His host not to invite people from whom he might expect repayment – his friends, his brothers, his wealthy neighbors. He says, instead, invite the poor and the lame and the crippled – the lowly ones. Well, that is whom He has invited to His wedding banquet – you and me. Remember, He told us in the gospel that the people who were originally invited did not come. Therefore, he sent out his servants, his apostles and his prophets, out to the highways and the byways, to the gutters, to the hedgerows, and He picked us up and He brought us into the wedding banquet. We need to be very careful that we do not get haughty about the whole thing and think, “Boy, I must be something special that I was invited to the wedding.” No, He invited you because you were the least, because you were the worst. You would not be the one expected to be invited to the wedding, but those who were invited rejected the invitation and so He invited you.
Now, in humility we have to respond. When we realize that we do not deserve to be at the wedding banquet but that, in His mercy, Our Lord has called us there, and one knows that he or she does not belong there, they must be so grateful; whereas, the one who thinks that they do belong there, looks at it as a matter of justice rather than a matter of charity. We have to see it as God’s love and we have to be so grateful for what it is He is doing for us. We need to be humble, not thinking ourselves to be something wonderful (because we are not) but rather we have to be humble before the Lord. We have to see what it is that He is doing for us.
The Eucharist, now, and heaven, for all eternity, is the marriage banquet of the Lamb. He has invited the poor, the lowly, the crippled, the blind, the lame – us! He has invited us to His wedding banquet! What is it that we say? “Lord, I am not worthy,” but do we really believe that? We tell Him the truth that we cannot make ourselves worthy and so we say, “ . . . only say the word.” It is He, and He alone, who can make us worthy, and the one who will be the most worthy is the one who is the most humble. And so, if we look at history to see the one who was the most worthy, she [Mary] is the one who was the most humble. “God has looked upon the humility of His lowly servant,” she said. God, who has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly. We remember the Psalm that talks about how God takes the one who is seated in the dung heap and raises him up to be seated with the princes of the people. The lowliest, the most humble, are the ones that God has chosen. That is us, and we cannot become arrogant because we were chosen or we will lose the call that is ours.
And so, we need to pray, earnestly, and beg God for the gift of humility. But, then, be prepared for what it will require. Humility comes at a cost. It requires humiliation. But look at somebody who you know who is truly humble and see the goodness, see the attractiveness of that beautiful virtue and recognize that it is worth every bit of all of the humiliation that you might have to suffer in order to obtain that virtue. When you see that quality, and you recognize that you cannot be the person God made you to be, nor can you do what God created you to do – to love, unless you have humility, then it is that which will spur you on to truly desire it, to want to get rid of pride in your life, and to beg God for the gracious gift of the virtue of humility.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.