Monday, August 29

The Call to Humility: Taking the Lowest Place

One of the most important virtues in the Christian tradition is that of humility. In fact, one of the most important calls in the Christian Scriptures is "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8; emphasis mine). There has been much written about Christian humility, and there are many wonderful examples found through its history - from the poverty of St. Francis of Assisi to the compassion of Mother Theresa; Jesus called this way "gentle and humble" (Matt. 11:29). The Beatitudes reflect this as well, wherein the humble are called the "poor in spirit," as well as later in the Matthean tradition, where we are told that we must become like little children - and in so doing, take on the humility and innocence of a child. Humility is something we desperately need in our society today, where ego, position and titles so often gets in the way of mercy, compassion and justice. If we are to walk in the way of peace, we must answer the call of humility, and take the lowest place.

Consider this past week's Gospel reading in light of the theme of humility. 
According to Luke 14:1, 7-14, 
"On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Phariseesand the people there were observing him carefully.... He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position’... 'For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.' 
Then [Jesus] said to the host who invited him, 'When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
This gospel has a very simple, yet radically potent message: "take the lowest place." Theologically, we would note that Jesus took "the lowest place" by humbling himself and emptying himself when he came to live among us, a process called kenosis (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). This process of self-emptying can lead to humility, yet we may often avoid the path of humility because it also leads to vulnerability. To be humble is to be open to vulnerability, to uncertainty and servanthood. Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, "Humility is the mother of all virtues - purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed, you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal."

Even Jesus, who deserved "the place of honor",
untied the sandals of his followers and washed their feet,
taking "the lowest place."
Our world today is very much about structures, titles, hierarchy, accreditation, and "places of honor." Yet in the gospel, Jesus is teaching us to "take the lowest place," regardless of our socio-economic, political, and cultural status. This is a hard lesson for us, because humans have a desire to be recognized, to be praised and affirmed, and to be remembered. This is not necessarily a bad thing; psychologist Abraham Maslow would argue that these are basic human identity needs. But challenges crop up when these identity needs are placed before the needs of others, or are lauded around and celebrated at the expense of the dignity and respect for others. I recently heard a story of a professor of graduate studies at a School for Theology who said that if the students had gone all four years of school without learning the names of the janitors who worked in their building, the good people who worked in food service or those who worked on maintenance for the university, then their degree was not earned. They had taken the place of honor, and now held the title, but had not been with those who had taken the lowest place.

Our role as humans in connecting with others ought to lead to upholding, respecting and dignifying others. But if we choose instead to make ourselves into something bigger, and "take the place of honor," then we overshadow those who have taken "the lowest place," and although we may stand as giants, we stand without these important human connections. This message of humility can be taken another way as well. This past Saturday, I attended a Profession of Solemn Vows for three Franciscan friars in Manhattan. On the way there, our bus encountered some difficulties and had to pull over for an extended period of time while the problem was being worked on. In the process, I grew restless and impatient, as I knew we would be late for the ceremony. As I understand it, the community I am with (and came with) was expected to sit in the front of the Church, and as such, be both the first in the opening procession of the ceremony, and probably the first to leave - receiving the recognition of the people.

However, we arrived about a half hour late, and at the end of the ceremony our presence was indeed recognized - but we were all sitting in the back of the Church. The recognition itself was not necessarily embarrassing, but the thought that we could have been the first was at first slightly frustrating for me. When hearing this gospel from St. Luke on Sunday, however, the story took on new meaning. It was not important to be the first ones to arrive or to leave - nor should I desire "the place of honor." It was better for me and for the others in my community to have sat in the very back, to "take the lowest place." It was better to be humbled by the experience of the problematic bus, so that I could learn a lesson of growth in both patience, humility, and vulnerability. It was better that the focus was on our three new solemnly professed friars, as the day was theirs, not ours. As Jesus said, "the one who exalts himself will be humbled," an experience I can now experientially attest to.

Seeking to be loved, admired and appreciated is indeed a very human quality - but as a Christian, I am called to littleness, minoritas, and humility. Today in various Christian denominations, the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist is remembered and celebrated. So in keeping with the life and lessons of St. John - who was himself a powerful speaker, prophet of the people and a well-known itinerant - we may recall his words regarding Jesus, that "He must become greater; I must become less" or as some translations say, "He must increase, and I must decrease" (John 3:30). We must also uphold those who have been marginalized by society, as Jesus says here - "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind," as well as the many other communities who continue to suffer from oppression and marginalization. These have experienced minoritas, and can teach us how to "seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God."

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