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God's Word on Sunday: The humble have strength in character

  • August 22, 2022

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 28 (Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29; Psalm 68; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-224a; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

Humility often suffers from a dubious reputation. It is accused of being instrumental in crushing people and denying them respect, dignity and the opportunity to grow. Often it is used to keep people in their place and to perpetuate inequalities and social hierarchies.

Ironically, what is often described is not humility at all, but the out-of-control egos of those who misuse the concept. Humility does not mean submissiveness or holding a low self-image or sense of unworthiness. The humble person is comfortable in their skin — they know who and what they are and are reasonably at peace. At the same time, the humble are realistic about themselves.

The word “humility” derives from the Latin “humus” — earth — so we could say that the humble person is well-grounded. They do not lose themselves in flights of fancy or wishful thinking, pretending to be what they are not. They recognize that their true worth and identity come from God and not from human societies.

Sirach warns that human “greatness,” renown or power carry with them the danger of inflating the ego. Much of the world’s misery is caused by egos that have run amuck, so the practice of humility has positive effects far beyond us.

An inflated ego blinds and misleads and seldom if ever ends well. Those in positions of power and honour should be especially vigilant and practise keeping both feet on the ground.

There is a hidden reward to practising humility: God reveals secrets to the humble. Part of being humble is recognizing how much we have to learn, and that is why Sirach counsels an attentive ear to others and a study of wisdom. We could sum up much of this by saying that part of humility is being at genuine peace with oneself.

What is it like to be in God’s presence? Hebrews described some of the conventional ways that encountering the divine was understood in the ancient world. It was a terrifying and overwhelming experience, and not everyone was capable of withstanding it. The author suggests a new image — the heavenly Jerusalem, the company of Christ, the angels and the spirits of the righteous.

God did not change, but perhaps our ways of thinking have. We should not give up on this positive vision or allow fearmongers and those who seek to control others to distort it. The cosmos is a friendly place and our journey to God should give us joy and purpose, even amid all of the world’s suffering and negative energy.

A banquet in the ancient world was far more than a meal or social gathering. It was a microcosm of society with its obsession with honour, rank and recognition. The banquet gathering was characterized by jockeying for position, competition and currying favour with influential people. The guests at this banquet were watching Jesus closely, but He was also watching them. He used their behaviour as a teaching opportunity. Noticing their relentless quest for places of honour, he cautioned them that they were setting themselves up for a brutal comedown: being asked in front of all to take a lower place. Better to take the lower place and be pleasantly surprised when asked to come higher.

But this was about more than banquets — it was about life itself. He ended with the warning that those who exalt themselves will be brought low, while those who are humble will be exalted.

We have witnessed the humbling of many over the last few years, and in most cases an arrogant ego and unbridled sense of entitlement was the chief culprit. Jesus ended with further advice centred on meals. When you have a get-together, invite those who are never invited anywhere — those some might consider losers or unacceptable company. Do this for no other reason than it is the kind and compassionate thing to do and not to gain some sort of advantage.

This is the rule for all of life, not just dinner parties. Humility is not a sign of self-abasement or unworthiness, but of strength of character and spiritual maturity.