The Gospel this Sunday is about humility. Christ urges us not to shove ourselves forward in an ambitious way trying to make ourselves out to be better or more important than we actually are. He says that the better thing for us is to be modest and unassuming; and if by doing this you have undervalued yourself, others will surely rectify the situation for you.
Jesus notices that the people attending the meal to which he had also been invited were vying for position. This is behaviour that to onlookers would appear to be somewhat unseemly. You can just imagine that there might have been a certain amount of jostling and a lot of glaring between the guests. But there is a motive for their behaviour, for to end up with a lesser place, according to them, would result in a loss of status. In a hierarchical society status was something that was regarded as particularly important and so asserting their status is therefore uppermost in their minds. People would have expended a lot of energy all through their lives constantly trying to maintain or, if possible, to improve their social position.
Our society is a lot less class ridden now that it used to be. Right up until recent years birth in this country was considered to be vitally important. If you were born into the right family then you could expect to live a life of privilege and position even if you did not have all that much money. What mattered was the family name and who you were connected to. This has become a lot more watered down in modern society and yet even today parents will go to extraordinary lengths to give their children a privileged start in life. They want their children to have every possible social advantage.
And all this is quite understandable. We want to make the most of what we have, we want to look good in front of others, we want to constantly improve our situation in life. And yet, here in this Gospel text Jesus proposes that we adopt a position that is the complete opposite. He tells us to act with humility and he tells us that paradoxically this will gain us even greater advantage if not in this life then most surely in the next one. He proposes that we hold back, that we don’t push ourselves forward, that we take a lesser place in life and that doing things this way will reap rich rewards in the long term.
It is true that asserting one’s status often leads to arrogance and feelings of superiority. We end up believing that our privileges have come as our right without our ever having done anything to deserve them. There is a funny old saying, ‘chose your parents with care.’ These people believe that because they happened to be born into particular families it means that everyone else should fall at their feet. Yet we know that the history of every illustrious family is littered with buffoons and ‘chinless wonders.’
As always, here Jesus is proposing the path of the virtues. We know what the seven heavenly virtues are: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. The one that he is emphasising in his words that we are reflecting on today is, of course, humility, but actually we should try to embody them all as well as we can.
The true Christian constantly examines his conscience and asks themselves whether they are adhering to these virtues or not. And when they find some aspects of these virtues are lacking they try to make them a greater reality in their lives. The older we get the more we realise that it is these virtues that are the secret to living a truly fulfilling life. There are two aspects to the virtues; the first is that by applying them we come to be gradually more and more appreciated by those around us as kind and understanding and helpful people. They help us to transform our character and enable us to become easier to live with.
The second is that the virtues are the basis for what we in the Church call moral theology; this is basically the study of how to make the moral decisions appropriate for a Christian in the world of today. We look at the various problems that face us and work out a whole sequence of different choices we could make. Then by application of the virtues we are able to work out which of these choices would be the right one in our particular circumstances. By asking ourselves just what a chaste, temperate, charitable, diligent, patient, kind and humble person would do in the particular situation we can come to a very clear idea about what is the right and best choice to make.
As we have seen Christ focusses in his words today on humility and his remarks were certainly very pointed and directed at people who were highly ambitious and who needed to learn a lesson about a better way to proceed in life. But he goes much further, and addresses even more challenging words to his host telling him to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to his parties precisely because they cannot repay him. In this way, he tells his host that if he follows these instructions, he will lay up treasures for himself in heaven.
You can imagine that the host, having managed to get this travelling celebrity to accept his dinner invitation, was delighted to invite the local worthies to the meal in the full expectation that they would have to repay him for providing such an outstanding evening. He was presuming that his little coup would mean that his status in the town was sure to rise. But what Jesus actually says is not what any of them expects. On that splendid evening I don’t believe that many of them were entertained, rather, I think that these words of Jesus put them all off their digestion and gave them a great deal to think about.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket