A while ago, I was with two parishioners, one of them said to me, “Father, each time we hear you preach, you remind us so much of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.” The other parishioner nodded in agreement. I looked at both of them, I paused for a moment, I remembered today’s first reading and Gospel passage, and I thought about what I planned to preach at this Mass. I looked at them again, and I said to them, “May God forgive you for what you just said to me, and may God forgive me for enjoying it so much.” As you all know, I am very humble, and I am very proud of my humility. But that is the strange thing about humility, the minute you think you have got it; you lose it.
My Dearly Beloved in Christ, Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. Once in a while, the journey is punctuated by some activities. Today, the journey is punctuated by a dinner, the last recorded dinner in Luke’s account of the Gospel before the Last Supper. A leading Pharisee is hosting Jesus for dinner. Since the host is a prominent Pharisee, it is natural to expect that most of those at the dinner are his fellow Pharisees. When Pharisees are mentioned in connection with Jesus, what comes to mind immediately is conflict.
The beginning of the Gospel passage tells us that “the people there were observing [Jesus] carefully.” The Greek verb used for this is paratereo, which has a nuance of “hostile observation.” So, they were not just observing Jesus carefully; they were observing him with hostility instead of focusing on the dinner. Sometimes, when we mention Pharisees, it sounds very remote, it is like we are talking about people who lived thousands of years ago. The truth is that we still have them among us, and the more bitter part of the truth is that in each of us, beginning with me, there is a bit of the Pharisee.
In terms of “hostile observation,” the Pharisee in a Parish is one who comes back from Sunday Mass, and when you ask such a person, “How was Mass today?” you will hear this response,
Oh, Mass was fine, except that the ushers were not authentic with their smiles at the entrance door, and you know what, the lady that sat beside me had a crying baby. The other issue is that the guy that read the first reading did not observe some of the punctuation marks, while the lady who read the second reading was reading to herself; she was not audible enough. For the homily, I have noticed that what the priest does is cut/copy and paste; it lacks originality. I was at another parish where the priest spoke from his heart, he was very eloquent, but he didn’t know when to stop, I guess he thought we were there to spend the whole day. You know something else that drives me crazy, our parish choir, those choristers sing like they are at a concert and not at a Mass. I also wonder why our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion don’t make eye contact and smile when they distribute communion…
You can see that to people like this, everything was wrong with the Mass except themselves. That is a “pharisaic” attitude.
The Pharisees were very convinced of their knowledge and observance of the law; they felt no one else could know and observe the law as perfectly as they did. Jesus saw where their pride was leading them to; he then used a simple parable to teach them about humility. He told them that when invited to a party, they should not presume that they were the most important guests. If they chose the most important seats, they might be embarrassed when more important guests would come in and take over the positions. With this parable, Jesus makes it clear that none of us is the host. We are all guests at the banquet. As such, we lack the faculty to judge the other guests. Only the host knows the caliber of people he has invited. So, he says, it is not our responsibility to judge.
The first reading and the Gospel passage teach great lessons on humility. But we need to be careful when we talk about humility as it can easily be mistaken for other things. Rick Warren notes that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Fred Smith, on same point, says, “Humility is not denying the power you have. It is realizing that the power comes through you, not from you.”
Etymologically, the word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which means “on the ground.” It is derived from humus, which means “earth.” Hence, when you are advised to humble yourself, it is a way of saying “be grounded.” This root reminds us of our connectedness with the earth. Before you brag too much about your status, your talents, your race, your wealth, etc, remember that we are all connected to the same earth. We all are dust, and to dust, we shall return (Cf. Genesis 3: 19).
Pride has led many into trouble. Lucifer lost his glory due to pride. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, lost the Garden of Eden due to pride. Pride is the devil’s comfort zone and playground; if you want to elude the devil, be humble. There is nothing that sets us so much out of the reach of the devil like humility. It pays to be humble, for the humble are always exalted. In Mary, we have an excellent example of humility, and God exalted her. Jesus was humble, he became one like us, and so God highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every other name that at the name of Jesus, every knee must bend and every tongue must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Cf. Philippians 2: 6- 11).
Let us pray for this virtue, saying, “Teach us humility, Lord and we shall be humble. Burn out of us, in this life, all that displeases you, so that we may not have to suffer the burns of the life to come. Amen.”