Have you ever walked into a big celebration and seen someone sitting by themselves and obviously a loner? Students, how often do you notice the kid who is off alone in the cafeteria? It happens in Hartmann Hall here at St. Mary’s Cathedral. During Fellowship after Mass some people sit by themselves. They don’t enjoy much fellowship during Fellowship.
Public meals reveal social structures. Jesus was keenly aware of that as he said, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” (Lk. 14:13) He told us to associate with lowly people. In this context he taught one of his most important lessons for disciples: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 14:11)
There is an explicit call to be humble at least a dozen times in the gospels. On three different occasions Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (see also Lk. 18:14; Mt. 23:12). Other times he put it in stronger terms. Twice he said, “Whoever wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” (Mk. 10:44; Mt. 20:27; cf. Lk. 22:26)
At the Last Supper, his actions of humility were more striking than his words. He knelt at the feet of the disciples who would deny and betray them, and he washed them with mercy. Then he said to them, “If I, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet.” (Jn. 13:14) Here he models humility before friends who stab you in the back.
Jesus modeled humble fellowship during the most important meal of his life. This is the kind of humility people ought to experience from us at Mass. And it should be how we treat others at weddings, the cafeteria at school, in Hartmann Hall or around the dinner table at home.
Why does he insist so often that disciples must be humble? First of all, he said that it is the way to experience the kingdom of God right now. He said to the disciples, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:2-4)
Little children are totally dependent on their parents and trust completely that their mom and dad will take care of them. Humble disciples are totally dependent on God and trust that the Lord will provide. So they are lighthearted and joyful. They experience the kingdom of God here and now. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:3) Right now!
They might live in dire poverty, but they are joyful. Ten years ago, I went on a mission trip to El Salvador with college students. We lived with the people in their simple homes with no running water, and the electricity was on for only about 4-6 hours a day. After the trip, I asked the students what was most memorable. They said, “How joyful the people are, even though they are so poor.”
It wasn’t merely that they are poor. In their poverty, they depend on God. They have humble faith. They are dependent on God and confident that the Lord will provide. This lesson is expressed clearly in Luke’s gospel, where the first beatitude is: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” (Lk. 6:20)
In the 1990’s, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the all the people in the Americas, that is, North America, Central America and South America. He said that the poorer countries have a humble faith that is a valuable gift for the richer countries. Today, there is discussion about establishing policies to deny permanent legal immigration status to the poorest people, or to those without higher education. Some are advocating that we should accept only those who can contribute to our country because of their level of education, training and wealth.
But this attitude fails to acknowledge the spiritual gifts that St. John Paul II encouraged us to receive from the poor. Their humble faith can enrich us. Their perseverance in adversity can inspire us. I do not know about you, but my ancestors came to this country with little education or wealth. They were dirt-poor farmers. But they were rich in faith and strong in perseverance.
Some of our leaders have a narrow vision for the future of our nation, a vision focused primarily on material wealth. They are like the rich Pharisee and his friends vying for places of honor at a banquet. They know how to hobnob with the wealthy for worldly honor. They use fancy dinners to make connections and to further business deals. They would look at you like you were crazy, if you said to them, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” (Lk. 14:13-14)
The danger is to think like the arrogant rich who are independently wealthy, who in their arrogance feel like they don’t need any help from anyone. They have no idea what it means to depend on God for everything, like the humble poor. Jesus warns his disciples not to act that way. Those who act like that will not enter the kingdom of heaven. They will have fleeting happiness in this life. People might honor them with status at banquets, or vote for them in popular elections, but they will miss the joy of the kingdom of heaven, here and in the hereafter.
Do you think that Jesus told his disciples to associate with the lowly so that they could teach us how to be real disciples? So they could enrich us with their humble faith and inspire us with their example of perseverance in adversity, and show us how to be generous to those who cannot repay the gift? Obviously, he told us to associate with the lowly so that we could feel the joy of ‘paying it forward.’ He said, “Blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.”
We are filled with such joy by surprising others with goodness with no expectation of repayment. Is there anyone who would know this better than Jesus? He was the master of gratuitous mercy; that is why he washed the feet of Peter and Judas. That is the joy he wants for us. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 14:11) Jesus was exalted with the resurrection and being seated at the right hand of God. He longs for us to share in those gifts.
At this Eucharist, be humble enough to receive that pure goodness from the Lord. Let him surprise you with his goodness, even though you do not deserve it. This is the key to a humble spirit, simply being open and receptive to God’s mercy.
Then ask for the grace to be humble at school with kids who are outsiders, or at your job with co-workers who have the lowest positions. Ask the Lord to guide our nation as it wrestles with how the complex issues of immigration or abortion, where the lives of the least are at stake. He expects us to associate with the lowly and stand up for their dignity.
Pray with humble faith. Trust that the Lord will not only show us the way, but provide us the courage and strength to do the right thing ….. if only we are humble and shun worldly honor.
“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” (Lk. 14:13-14)