Christ is the ultimate realist; he knows the human heart (after all, he made it), and doesn’t want to stifle it – he wants to set it free. At first glance, the lessons of today’s gospel seems simple and straightforward; at second glance, they are shocking.
On the surface, this lesson is about humility and generosity:
- Don’t assume your importance by sitting in the seat of honor on your own initiative;
- Don’t give your hospitality just to people who can pay you back.
Certainly Jesus intends to teach these lessons, and certainly the Pharisees needed to learn them, just as we need to learn them, but there’s more going on here.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus doesn’t say,
- “You should not want to be honored at all,”
- “You should seek no reward for your good deeds”?
As the modern secularist mindset would have us believe, Christian humility is stifling and self-defeating. Christian virtue, so they say, means absolute selflessness, even to the point of killing the desire for happiness and fulfillment. Some modern pundits have even found fault with Christians because they try to do what is right and good, since their motive for doing what is right and good is to be happy.
But those critics are way off base. We cannot kill our desire for fulfillment. It is built in — God put it there, like a homing device that constantly leads us towards him.
And so, Christ doesn’t condemn the natural desire for honor and reward; he elevates it. We should seek the true reward of lasting happiness that comes from living in friendship with God. That means practicing the virtue of humility, since only the humble can have authentic friendships. And we should put ourselves in “the lowest place” now, serving others while we can.
But what does humility look like?
Today’s First Reading (Sirach 3:17-29) tells us. It gives us three faces of humility.
First, humility admits that it doesn’t know everything: “What is too sublime for you, seek not.” Our fallen nature tends to act like a know-it-all. But that only creates tension and anxiety. This week, let’s not be afraid to admit that we don’t know it all.
Second, humility doesn’t insist on doing things its own way – it stays open to other people’s advice and ideas: “An attentive ear is the joy of the wise.” Our fallen nature tends to be bull-headed – we want our own way, or else! But that creates even more tension than the know-it-alls. This week, let’s have “an attentive ear”, so we can experience the “joy of the wise.”
Third, humility serves others instead of demanding to be served: “alms atone for sins.” When we give alms, when we give our time, talents, and treasures to help those in need, we reverse the curse of sin that plagues us and our world. This week, let’s pay as much attention to giving as we do to getting.
Attempting to do all three at once can be daunting. Jesus is realistic — he knows what we’re made of. If we ask him which one of these we need to work on, he’ll surely tell us — after all, he wants what’s best for us even more than we do.