By Father John P. Cush
THE SITUATION IN the parable offered by the Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel from the Evangelist Luke presents a pretty embarrassing situation. The guest at the banquet who takes the best seat at first, has to move when a more distinguished guest comes forward. It’s embarrassing for the one who has to move, it’s embarrassing for the host of the banquet, it’s even embarrassing for the more distinguished guest. All around red faces, especially for the guest who plopped himself down in the good seats!
The simple lesson that the Lord Jesus wishes to teach us is humility, a very underrated virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes humility as the foundation of prayer. In many ways, humility is the ability to see things the way that they truly are; it’s being able to recognize the proper order in the universe.
What does this mean? Namely this: God is Creator, we are creature. He is infinite, we are finite; He is omnipotent and we are weak; He is holy and we are wracked with sin. He is the all-beautiful one and we are the ones who have, by sin, distorted the wonderful image and likeness with which we have been blessed. He is omniscient and we can barely know our own name! As I have said before in this column – over the now 15 years that I have been a regular contributor – “God is God, we’re not God, and thank God for that.”
Created Out of Love
Humility is also the ability to recognize the fact we are fearfully, wonderfully created by Almighty God out of love. We are redeemed by the Precious Blood of the Savior, and we are enlightened by the power of the Lord and Giver of Life who is the Holy Spirit. Humility means being able to see just how blessed we are by God. We don’t deserve it and nothing that we can do, in and of ourselves, can and will make us worthy. Humility is the ability to see all in life as totally, utterly gratuitous. Humility is recognizing how blessed we truly are. In the vast cosmic plan of the universe, an insignificant speck like you and me are pretty precious. So too is every single other human being on this planet. Humility is all about knowing who you are: a being in relation with God, others and yourself.
Some concrete examples, then, from which we can learn the fine virtue of humility – one from Sacred Scripture, one from the tradition of the Church and a contemporary example.
Three Role Models
First, Sacred Scripture: If there was anyone in Salvation history who could have been proud and gotten away with it, it was John the Baptist. The Baptist was chosen by God to be the last and greatest of the Prophets; he was called to be the forerunner of the Messiah. Yet many people of his day thought John was not preparing the way for the Messiah; they thought he was the Messiah. Imagine the feeling of thousands upon thousands hanging on your every word, waiting to see what you would do as you preached your fiery message.
If anyone could have gotten away with not being humble, it was John the Baptist. After all, even the true Messiah, the Lord Jesus said, “among those born of women, no one is greater than John.” John knew who he was in the eyes of God, the world and his own eyes. He knew what he was born to do and because of the great love of Christ, that the least in the Kingdom is greater than he. It was his role to shout out: “Behold the Lamb of God.”
Second, the tradition of our Church: the greatest thinker in the history of the Church, if not the world, was Thomas Aquinas. It was he who became the bridge between the philosophy of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle and the Catholic faith. It was Thomas’ philosophical and theological framework that serves to this day as the basic structure of the entire Catholic theological vision. Yet, near the end of his short life (he died when he was about age 49), Thomas described all his work as “straw.” Nothing mattered ultimately compared to the experience of love that he had of His Lord Jesus.
Another story tells us that Thomas received a mystical vision in which Jesus spoke to him from the corpus on a crucifix and complimented him, stating that no one had ever written more gloriously and correctly about His Eucharistic Body and Blood. The Lord said to Thomas Aquinas whatever it was that he wanted in the world, he would be granted. The wise and gentle future Doctor of the Church knew who he was and knew his place in the universe. This son of St. Dominic looked his Lord and God in the eyes and uttered three little words: “Nil nisi te” (“Nothing but you”).
Recognizing One’s Limits
Third, an example of sublime humility in the modern world is Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI. Imagine the courage of Benedict to be able to give up the Petrine Office, an honor and a duty which he never sought, because he realized that he cannot physically perform his role as Holy Father as best as he should.
Imagine his humility to recognize that he needed to step aside, that he had tried his best and another man with a different personality, temperament and style, might be best for the Church and the world today. Joseph Ratzinger knew who he was in the eyes of God and in humility, gave up the most important role in the world, being the supreme pontiff of the Church for the good of his Bride, the Church.
Humility is all about knowing who you are: a beloved son or daughter of God. It is knowing that God is God, we’re not and thank God for that. Looking to the example of John the Baptist, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope-Emeritus Benedict, may we grow in self-awareness and in the virtue of humility.
Readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29
Psalm 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11
Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24a
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Father John P. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is the academic dean of the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City State and a professor of U.S. Church history.