I have little experience of dinner parties where the guests are arranged according to social rank. But I was once seated across the table from the guest of honor, a high-ranking member of the episcopacy. Whatever his gifts as a church leader, as a conversationalist, he was dead wood, at least with women guests. He spoke vigorously enough to the man on his right. It did not take long until I yearned to be sitting at the far end of the table.
My wish had nothing to do with humility. It was a longing for comfortable companions with which to enjoy the dinner. I looked wistfully down to where sat an interesting Lutheran minister and Rabbi Wulf and his lovely wife, Miriam, old friends from the Ecumenical movement. My desire at the dinner party was not a sign of humility, yet today’s Gospel invokes a similar situation to demonstrate that virtue.
The first reading, from Sirach, gives a practical perspective on the virtue of humility. As is his wont, the author of Sirach aims at a wisdom that brings both earthly happiness and Torah righteousness. He advises humility as the way to win God’s favor. For Sirach, this means that we must not seek for the sublime, nor try to reach beyond our strength. Be content, he advises, to listen to the wisdom of those greater than yourself. Practice such behavior, Sirach advises, "and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts" Good advice whether you are thinking of the kingdom of here and now or the kingdom of heaven. In the context, the last verse seems an abrupt change of theme: "alms atone for sins."
In some ways, the Gospel echoes Sirach. Like Sirach, Jesus points out the worldly benefit of humility, but Jesus describes it as aiming for the lowest place at a dinner party. The host may well seat you higher and then everyone present will esteem you. Jesus seems to suggest that the pay-off for humility is the esteem of others. Then Jesus turns the parable upside down. He looks to the role of the host, not the guests. In doing so, he expands the tag line of Sirach. When you are the host, Jesus says, invite the beggars, the crippled, the lame and the blind. This involves more than giving alms. The admonition requires that you associate yourself with those who are outcast because they are weak, damaged, deemed inferior. This is what Jesus did. He sought out the company of those who were powerless and despised--the beggars, the sinners, the tax collectors, the women. He ate with them and, in doing so, brought contempt upon himself. This humility brings no worldly benefit.
Perhaps the etymology of the word can help us to plumb its meaning. At the root of "humility" is the word "humus," the Latin word for "soil." Not "dirt" which is "sordes," but soil, as in the rich material in which we plant our food and, even more importantly, the material which the Creator used in forming Adam and Eve. Herein lies, I think, the ambiguity and confusion that the virtue of humility seems to create.
On the one hand, the earthiness the word implies can lead us to consider ourselves inferior, destined to a lower place in the world and in the Kingdom and admonished to keep that place. We have seen slave owners promote that understanding of the virtue of humility to keep the slaves in their place. We have seen it promulgated by factory owners to maintain a docile work force and yes, we have seen women in all conditions of life constrained by this understanding preached from pulpit and family. Keep your place. Eschew ambition. You don't deserve to be any higher than you are.
But there is another side to the root of the word. The humus in humility can remind us of our common humanity, a condition that bids us to think everyone our equal, to give alms because the needy one is our sister or brother, to seek the company of the lowly because they are us. And though all of us are created from the common soil we are made "little lower than the angels," we are made in the image and likeness of God. All of us.
Jesus demonstrated that side of humility too. As a guest, he reminded Simon the Pharisee that he deserved to have his feet washed. As a host at the Last Supper, he showed that his guests deserved to have their feet washed by him. In assuming the fullness of human nature, he became like us in all things, save sin.
If we are to be humble after the pattern of Jesus, then we must assume the dignity that comes from being made in God's image, only a little lower than the angels, from knowing that the Word chose to be made flesh like us. If we are to be humble after the pattern of Jesus, then, like Him, we must lay aside the garments that social status and worldly privilege dress us in and wash the feet of those who are like us, equal to us, made in the image and likeness of God. We must, in short, wash each other's feet.
Rarely does the second reading speak to the themes drawn out in the first reading and the Gospel. But today in this selection from Hebrews, I think we can find an appropriate commentary. We are invited to enter the assembly made up of angels in festal gathering, to enter the assembly of the first-born, where God the judge and Jesus the mediator are present. This is the Eucharistic assembly, the banquet where God is the host and Jesus our fellow guest. This is the banquet where Jesus waits to wash our feet from the dust and dirt of human failing. This is the banquet where we will not be asked to go lower but to draw nearer, standing in the full dignity of our humanity, risen with Jesus through baptism. Keep your place. Yes, and your place is here at this banquet where you will be fed the Bread of Angels. Strengthened by this bread you will go forth to wash feet, feed the hungry, comfort the dispirited, protect the stranger. For you will see in each of them the image of God, the face of Christ.
Marie Anne Mayeski
With an advanced degree in English Literature, I taught in a Catholic high school for eight years. Seeking to be a better religion teacher I took a course in New Testament Theology and that course changed my intellectual and spiritual focus and the trajectory of my career. I received a Ph.D. in Theology from Fordham University and taught for 30 plus years in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University. My areas of specialization were New Testament theology, early Christian history and the place and accomplishments of women in Christian history. Among my professional publications, I would note Women at the Table: Three Medieval Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2004). More recently, I have published a childhood memoire entitled Once Upon a Different Time. I have served in various ministerial capacities—in the choir, as lector and teacher—in my Los Angeles parish since 1987. Sometime in the mid-eighties, my pastor asked that I extend my work as teacher in the RCIA and preach the homily at the Easter Vigil. I did so with great joy and gratitude for almost twenty years.
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