By: Michel-Philippe Priso, SJ – Cameroon
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, praise Jesus Christ!
On this 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, the Lord teaches us at length about the salvific value of humility. Humility is not to be understood here as a simple moral value that could be filed away in a sub-folder among the cardinal virtues, especially as a kind of strategic prudence that would allow us to be one step ahead of the situation.
No. Humility is to be understood in today’s liturgy not in the sense of men, but in the sense of the Kingdom of God. Humility is to be understood today as the fundamental and distinctive attitude of anyone who grows spiritually and humanly towards salvation.
In the first Reading, Ben Sirach the Wise preaches on humility by rebuking the attitude that is directly opposed to it, namely, pride. He notes in particular that “the condition of the proud is without remedy, for the root of the evil is in him.
The weight of this inspired maxim should not go unnoticed: an interior illness “without remedy” and which, moreover, is “the root of evil” must be understood here as an attitude fundamentally incompatible with the grace of God: as long as there is pride in us, we resist, even unconsciously, to God, so that, in order for His Word to penetrate us, the non-negotiable solution, to be taken or left, is to flush out this pride and to fight it actively by the strength of humility.
Humility thus appears as a strength and not as an abstention from action. Humility appears, better, as a force that comes from Above and not from the human being, because tearing out evil at its root is a Divine prerogative in which humans only participate more or less generously.
Everyday life attests to the relevance of Ben Sirach the Wise: the situation in which Herod found himself after having promised to offer everything to the dancer Salome to reward her for her beautiful performance (Mt 14:3-12), comes typically from pride. He wanted to show off his ability to offer great goods, and when he realized that the bill was too heavy, since it involved the murder of John the Baptist, he could not back down, because his pride was engaged. There was no remedy for his situation, the root of the evil had reached him. The only way out for him would have been to put the human life of John the Baptist above his own pride. But he did not have that inner strength.
The example of Herod, faced with his pride, here nourished by Salome, is similar to that of each of us. Will we have the vigilance to put pride in the background and true values in the foreground? If we think about it more closely, we discover, in the strength of humility, a certain intelligence: the virtue of humility is full of intelligence in that it also consists in discerning the issues at stake in a situation and in putting God ahead of our inner idols. Indeed, to put human life above our pride is to put God first in a concrete way in a situation.
This is what Herod failed to do. This is what we often fail to do ourselves. The first grace we must ask for today to reject pride and acquire humility is inner intelligence, spiritual intelligence.
This spiritual intelligence is acquired by listening to the Word of God, as Ben Sirach explains in the final of the first reading: “The ideal of the wise man is a listening ear”. The struggle against pride is often reduced to the acquisition of the capacity to be open to what does not come from ourselves, and especially to what challenges our certainties.
Listening allows us to welcome the new, and this newness, when we allow it to prove itself, broadens our horizons. The other name for humility is “openness of mind”, or better yet, “availability of heart”. Let us ask the Lord to make our hearts and ears available to His Word and that of our neighbor.
In the Second Reading, the virtue of humility is rightly presented, in a sense, as a necessity for living in communion with God and our neighbor: “You have come (…) to thousands of angels celebrating and to the assembly of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. However, humility, whose dimensions of intelligence and openness we have just highlighted, is adorned here above all with a third characteristic, which touches on our deep identity claims.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us here that the whole world is a gigantic communion, from the chemical interactions that weave cosmic phenomena to the ethical interactions in which charity moves. And all of this is both colossal and beyond any capacity to control. In the face of this created vastness over which God is enthroned, there is an invitation to define ourselves as happy participants, not as claimants.
To participate in cosmic and theological harmony is pure grace, and the question “who am I?” is most radically answered from this perspective. Humility thus consists in receiving oneself as a gift offered to oneself by God. In this dynamic of reception lies a new way of defining our identities: they are no longer ethnic, ideological, or even confessional: they participate in the Divine love.
It is by defining ourselves as participants in Divine love that we practice humility, even in our own personal treasure, seeing it as a resource to help the whole of humanity move towards God, and not as a preserve. This also applies to our personal attitudes: to acquire humility is to learn to live with others in a constructive and cooperative spirit that does not hesitate to step aside to allow the common good to prevail. Once again, humility is linked to the theme of the primacy of the essential over the secondary, of love over the ego, of God over our inner idols.
In the gospel, Jesus recapitulates the previous teachings by starting from a real-life situation: the natural tendency for human beings is to advertise themselves, as is the case for those who immediately choose the first place at a party in the gospel. Jesus’ teaching that it is wiser to humble oneself in order to be exalted, rather than to exalt oneself in order to be humbled, is a relevant level of reading, and we benefit from making it our own. It comes back to the intelligence of humility seen above.
However, it is still a superficial level of reading. Jesus is not speaking here only of human festivals. Jesus is talking about the invitation to the feast of the Kingdom, and this begins with life in the Church.
In a sense, Jesus is questioning us about the way in which we answer the question “Who is the greatest? Who is the greatest: in the parish, at school, in the family, etc.? If you sincerely think that you are the greatest, you run the risk of what is said about people who choose the first places: from first you will be made last. It is better not to ask the question of who is the greatest. Any answer to this question is a matter of pride because the question itself is foreign to the spirit of Christ.
Christ tells us elsewhere “if you want to be the greatest, be the servant of all” (Mt 23:11; Jn 13:13-15). In other words, choosing the last place means participating in communion by seeking the perfection of humble service. It is in this posture of a devoted servant that the Lord will then come to raise us, not necessarily in the official hierarchy, but most certainly in the moral hierarchy, that of growth in intimacy, friendship, trust lived between Him and us.
This is the real privilege; this is the real “pride” to be sought: the friendship experienced with God in secret.