Readings:“Humility,” Evangelical theologian James Houston once wrote, “is moral realism.” That simple definition stuck with me over the years because it points to the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the virtue of humility. Humility is rooted in the knowledge that some actions are right and good while others are wrong and evil. It also demands an unflinching assessment of who we are and, ultimately, who God is—and, finally, who we are in relationship to God.
• Sir. 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
• Psa. 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
• Heb. 12:18-19, 22-24a
• Lk. 14:1, 7-14
Today’s first reading is from Sirach—also known by its Latin title, Ecclesiasticus—one of five works of Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. (Protestant Bibles don’t count Sirach or Wisdom among the canonical texts, but sometimes include them and five other “deutero-canonical” books in an appendix.) Fittingly, about 75% of the 400 references in the Old Testament to wisdom are found in the Wisdom literature, and humility is a trait often closely associated with those who are wise. For the Old Testament authors, wisdom referred to many interrelated abilities and virtues, ranging from the skill of a craftsman to cleverness to personal holiness.
Wisdom literature often drew upon elements of Greek philosophy and rhetoric while seeking to show that true wisdom flowed not from Athens, but from Jerusalem. This wisdom was not simply human understanding, but a knowledge of the living God who is the giver of wisdom, especially to those are humble in spirit: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).
Jesus, the model of humility, is the personification of wisdom. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom…” Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “but to those who are called Jews and Greek alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23, 24).
Both the wisdom and humility of Jesus are revealed further in today’s Gospel reading. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there are numerous conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, the legal experts who interpreted and explained the Law for many of the Jewish people. Jesus had already argued with Pharisees while eating meals (Lk. 5:29; 7:36; 11:37) and had debated some of the Pharisees over the issue of what sort of activities were allowable on the Sabbath (Lk. 6:1). As Luke Timothy Johnson notes in his commentary, “If Jesus eats a meal with a Pharisee on the Sabbath, there surely will be conflict!”
The Evangelist masterfully captures the tension by noting that the other people at the meal “were observing [Jesus] carefully” and that Jesus, likewise, noticed the priorities and actions of those present. This was followed by Jesus’ remarks, which unfolded in two parts.
First, He provided a sort of practical exhortation on humility that was focused mostly on external actions: “Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place.” This was said to sophisticated Jewish leaders who had likely been influenced to a significant degree by Hellenistic culture, in which humility was considered a sign of weakness. So Jesus’ famous remark—“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”—would have been disquieting enough by itself, even though it was a reiteration of teachings found in the Wisdom literature (cf. Prov. 25:6-7).
But Jesus went deeper, past the external actions to the heart of the matter, which was not limited to temporal affairs but concerned eternity and the judgment of God. Do not invite your friends and family, Jesus exhorts the host, but “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” These were the unfortunate and lowly souls who were forbidden by the Law from the priesthood (Lev 21:17-21) and were—according to some of the stricter Jewish sects—thought to be unfit to participate in God’s great banquet at the end of time.
Just as He did in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was casting the light of eternity on the moral choices made in this world by teaching that without authentic humility we will not know or see God.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the September 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)