The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”
In this age of e-mails, one thing I love is to receive a hand-written invitation in the mail. I know that is old-fashioned, but some things never go out of style. And generally when such invitations arrive, they are for something very special. A wedding. Or a significant birthday or anniversary. As I open the invitation and look at the upcoming date, I usually am praying that I will be able to attend this joyful event. And some invitations are more exciting, or exclusive than others. I remember once a friend of mine received an invitation from the Governor General to come to for dinner and stay at Rideau Hall overnight. Wow! How exciting. Yes, invitations are fun.
In Jesus’ day the most exciting and exclusive invitations one could receive would have been from the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, from Herod, the King, or from the Chief Priest. Ironically, Jesus did receive invitations from all of them, but they were not very exciting invitations. We always assume that invitations are issued with love, however, as Jesus unfortunately found out, often when the leaders in his society offered him invitations, they were not issued with love.
In our Gospel today, we are told; “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.” I do not hear much love there. They were watching him closely. It seems as though this invitation was sent with malice, it seems this invitation was sent so that the Pharisees could examine Jesus up close, and try to find a way to trap him and get rid of him. After all, Jesus had been giving the Pharisees bad press. Last week we heard of how Jesus castigated them as they forbid healing on the Sabbath. And earlier on, when Jesus had dined with another Pharisee, he yelled at him saying; “Woe to you Pharisees…who neglect justice and the love of God…who love to have the seat of honour…” Strong words. Nonetheless, Jesus accepted the Pharisee’s invitation.
Let us pretend for a moment that you received such a malicious invitation. Sort of like getting a summons from the court. How would you prepare for such an event? Well first of all I think that I would decline such an invitation if I had the chance. Frankly I would probably run the other way. Secondly, if I were to accept, I would be ready to defend myself. Defend my actions, my life, even my errors. And further I would probably think of how I might discredit those who were against me. I would be ready to fight.
Well, so much for my discipleship. The interesting thing is that Jesus did none of these. None. He accepts the invitation, even though he knows why he has been invited. He does not defend his actions, or person, and in this case, does not even attack his hosts directly. Rather, he tells them a parable. Jesus picks up on something that he had already spoken about, about how the Pharisees liked to pick the highest seats of honour at banquets to be seen. So Jesus tells the Pharisees the parable we have just heard, and concluded by saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.
What exactly is Jesus saying here? In the context of the parable and the Pharisees he is saying that they should not be so obsessed with trying to exalt themselves, for if we puff up our egos too much, they are bound to burst. If you are too full of yourself, you will come a cropper. I think we all understand this first part of Jesus’ statement. It’s like the old expression, “Pride comes before a fall”. Or as our reading from Sirach states; The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord. This is what the Pharisees were doing. Trying to forsake the Lord. And they were about to be humbled by Jesus again.
It is the second part of Jesus’ statement that I find more difficult. Jesus says, “those who humble themselves will be exalted”. I’m not too sure that I like this one. Need I be humbled? To begin to help understand this truth, let’s look at humility. Not an easy grace. I somehow equate it with being embarrassed. Well, this is not at all what Jesus would want for us. Father John Wickham, a previous Director of the Ignatian Center here in Montreal, helps us understand this phrase as he defines humility as joyful freedom. Joyful freedom, he says, comes when we know who we really are, and give thanks for how God has made us, rather than, in this materialistic world, be defined by what we have. Joyful freedom comes when we realize that God’s love for us is a grace, we cannot earn it, it is offered to us as a gift. Joyful freedom comes when we are open to all people in our community, and do not judge those different from ourselves. Also, joyful freedom, he says, can be with us in both good times and bad, in sickness and in health. Christian humility is a gift from God, a gift for all seasons of our lives. So when we talk of humility, let us think in terms of joyful freedom. The freedom to know God, to accept God’s love, and the freedom to advance God’s kingdom. When we know who we are in Christ, we need not get caught up in worldly values. So in the context of this parable, some words from our second reading from Hebrews seem so fitting. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. So let us indeed go forward with humility, with joyful freedom, to know God, to know ourselves, and to love our neighbours.
So as Jesus accepts his invitation with humility, he goes fully knowing who he is in the Father, and he knows the Father’s will. So Jesus does not go to this meal with a worldly defence, but rather he continues to teach all those present more about the Kingdom of God. He tells this parable to teach them, and to teach us about true humility, about joyful freedom that can come only from God.
And is not what Jesus says the truth? That when you humble yourself, what follows can be exaltation. I find that when I stop trying to be in control of everything, when I put my agenda aside, and allow things to happen around or to me, humility has a chance to enter. One example was a week ago Friday when, after I celebrated the Noon Eucharist, I stayed for another few hours as part of the Hospitality Group of the Cathedral. That is, to be at the back of the church and interact with visitors. Who knew what would happen in that time? Well, as it turns out, I had a most interesting conversation with a young Muslim student who is studying at McGill. New to Montreal, he had lots of questions for this old Priest, both secular and religious questions. In the end I must say, surprisingly enough, that he encouraged my faith. His enthusiasm for life, faith and prayer was contagious.
One other example comes from my recent trip down to the Maine coast. As I sat on the beach, I closed my eyes, and listened only to the sea. Wave after wave. No agenda. Just centering meditation with the sea as my teacher. Again, I was so refreshed and encouraged. I gave thanks for God’s creation. I felt exalted, I knew the Lord was near. Has things like this not happened to you? When you humble yourself before God, when you humble yourself before people, when you become silent and listen to and for God’s presence, is God not always there? And as you come to know that, are you too not both humbled and exalted?
When you practice Christian humility, that is, joyful freedom, you will not be afraid of humility, but welcome it. For Christian humility sets us free. Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”. May we all be humbled so that God can exalt us. Praise be to God.