One of the methods I often employ when preparing my homilies is to think back on the days of my youth (it seems like an eternity ago!!!) trying to recall what other priests have focussed on in their preaching. Thank God, I have been blessed with a good memory, even if my brain cells seem to be on a go-slow nowadays! When reflecting on the passage of the Gospel today (Luke 14), I recall how my brother priests preached, almost exclusively, on the importance of humility as if humility were the most important and sole theme of the text.
This is not meant as a criticism, so please do not misunderstand me. Humility is one of the most essential elements in the Christian life, it would be folly to suggest otherwise. My favourite saint, Saint Augustine, whom I often quote, once said: ‘It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels’. But to see humility as the sole theme of the Gospel text today is to miss what I believe is the essential element of the Gospel passage.
The framework or genre of the Gospel text is a parable. Bearing this in mind, the parable must not be interpreted solely as a piece of worldly wisdom or even as a lesson in humility, as it is usually understood. Rather, the essential element of the Gospel passage deals with a more profound aspect of our relationship with God and the acceptance of our own inadequacy.
In the person of Jesus, God invites all people to the Messianic Feast. And what should our response to this invitation be? We must renounce any claim or merit of our own. This is the sense of humility that I suggest is at work here. It is not primarily about being obsequious.
Using the Pharisees as a showcase example, Jesus shows how these conceited men expected the best seats as a reward for keeping the Torah. Jesus then goes on to show that they, like the outcast, must learn that salvation must be accepted as an unmerited gift. We find favour with the Lord not because favour is a reward for humility, but because humility, like faith, means abandoning self‑assertion, relinquishing all trust in our own righteousness, and allowing God to act where we can do nothing.
Humility, in the Christian sense, is not purely a passive virtue; like faith, to which it is closely akin. Rather it is highly active. Christian humility begins with the acceptance of our own inadequacy. We must acknowledge and accept that we cannot measure up and that we cannot avoid disappointing both others and ourselves. Who is at fault then? It is not that we do not put in the effort or that there is a lack of sincerity in what we do. The felix culpa is that we are human. We are not God, not even the god of our own lives!
In our modern age, great emphasis is placed on what we do and on achieving. As a result, the human spirit finds no peace. All of us have experienced the feeling that there are so many things unfinished in our lives and there are so many unfulfilled promises. The anguish of something else that we should have remembered, done or said, invades our consciousness. There are always people we did not write to, speak to, or visit. Therefore, although we are very busy, we also have an incessant awareness of never really fulfilling our obligations. This results in a pervasive suspicion of being unfulfilled permeating our filled lives.
I am not being negative or neurotic here! If we only accept our own dependence on God, then this will generate deep hope and renewed energy in our lives. To be human is to be inadequate, by definition. Only God is adequate and the rest of us must accept that and not fear being inadequate! God who made us this way surely gives us the slack, the forgiveness, and the grace we need to work with such a state. This is humility I suggest is at work in the Gospel text today, or, as Saint Augustine would say: ‘God provides the wind, but man must raise the sails’.