How to be humble

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)

This morning in our gospel reading we are confronted with the great paradox of the Christian life. Namely, that the way of glory is the way of humility. Those who in the end are lifted up high will be those who in the present go down low. This same paradox is presented in different ways throughout the New Testament: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, if you want to find your life you have to lose it, and so on. In the final analysis these are all different ways of talking about that one great act of divine hospitality that stands at the centre of our faith: the mystery of Christ’s Passion, his death and resurrection. And here at the outset of this sermon let me tell you the single point that I want to make: the only way to humble yourself is to allow God’s hospitality to transform you.

So Jesus is at a dinner party hosted by an honourable man. There are a lot of dinner parties in Luke’s gospel more, in fact, than in any of the other gospels. Which, right off the bat, raises an interesting question. How often do we eat together? Do you eat in each others’ homes? “Well yes, Father Jonathan, we just had our dear friends over last weekend in fact.” No, no, no. Not with your friends or family. When was the last time you invited someone else over for dinner? The new person at church. The neighbour who is grieving. The weird uncle that no one talks to. The colleague that is of a different political persuasion. Your enemy.

Never mind. Yes, Jesus is at a dinner party but he’s not simply passing on good (or terrible?) advice on how to host a meal. He’s watching the guests and he sees how they’re all tripping over one another to get to the best seat at the table. The seat nearest the host. The seat that will secure them the most social clout.

What does Jesus see when he just sits back and watches us? This is a safe space, right? So let’s be honest. Whatever way you slice it we want the glory and we’ll find pretty much any way to get it. We’ll exaggerate our virtues and minimize our vices. We’ll step on top of others so that we appear higher up. We’ll chase after worldly success and wealth to create a facade of superiority. We’ll surround ourselves with people just like us. And if you’re sitting in the seat that I want then we devour one another. Sounds a bit like our current, increasingly polarized, cultural climate don’t you think?

There are the invited guests all clamouring for the most honourable spot when Jesus decides to tell them a parable intended to shock them out of their spiritual stupor and turn their neat and tidy social accounts upside down. “When you’re invited to a party,” says Jesus, “forget about the most honourable seat. If you try and take it for yourself there’s a good chance you’ll get demoted. Rather, go and sit down at the lowest place. Then you may receive honour when the host calls you his friend and invites you further up and further in.”

We’re back at the paradox with which we began. Only those who humble themselves will be exalted. But if we press this further we discover a paradox within the paradox. You can’t try to be humble. For example, let’s imagine I ended this sermon by saying, “This week I want you to go and practice being humble and next Sunday I’m going to check in with you.” Well next Sunday rolls around and I pull you aside during coffee hour and ask, “So, how’d it go? Were you humble this week?” “Father Jonathan I was so humble this week, let me tell you about it.”

It’s funny because the irony is immediately apparent. You cannot strive for humility because then you are trying to be something. You cannot practice humility because then you are trying to attain something.[1] In fact, no one who is truly humble can even know themselves as such because the minute you say, “I’m humble,” you’re not.

It’s often the case that even our attempts at humility conceal our desire to be exalted. Yeah, sure, I may appear pretty humble to you but the gaze of my Lord pierces deep into my heart and he knows to what degree even my religious habits can be done simple to be seen and admired others. And sometimes Jesus is just sitting there, watching, and he sees us, and he loves us, and he invites us to a better way.

He invites us to join him. He invites us to share in his death and resurrection. Because the only way to humble yourself is to allow God’s hospitality to transform you. I know I quoted this passage from St Paul last week but it’s so good I have to do it again this morning: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Stay with me now. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil 2:5-11).

Friends let me tell you, the Cross is the lowest place. And that’s the seat that our blessed Lord took when he assumed our flesh and poured out his life for you and I. And he did this not for glory, not for the accolades, not for respect, not for the status, not so we could pay him back, not out of any concern for himself whatsoever but only out of regard for others. For the good pleasure of his heavenly Father and our eternal joy. That is his only concern. Therefore God the Father exalted him above all things.

To take the lowest seat is to join him there at the Cross. The Christian life is not about doing: doing more, doing better, doing spiritual or religious things. The Christian life is about the end of our doing. The Christian life is about dying. And there in our death meeting the risen and living Lord who has come to raise us up with him. And one day your body will be raised with his.

C.S. Lewis once said that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself it’s thinking of yourself less. The only antidote then to all of our clamouring for glory and faux humility is to cease thinking of myself and begin to think about him. Go to the Cross daily in prayer. Behold your Lord the host who has invited you to the party of the ages. Behold his love and mercy. Meditate upon that. Think about it always. Because the only way to humble yourself is to allow God’s hospitality to transform you.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar

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