Holding Your Head High in Humility

View the readings for this Sunday.

Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
•Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
•Ps 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
•Heb 12:18-19, 22-24A
•Lk 14:1, 7-14

By Marc Massery

We all know that person who frequently beats themselves up in the name of humility. But thinking poorly of ourselves is not what humility is all about.

In the Gospel reading this Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about humility in the house of one of the leading Pharisees, of all places. While people choose their seats, Jesus says:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. ... the host ... may approach you and say, 'Give your place to this [more distinguished] 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.' Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk 14:8-9).

We need to be careful not to misinterpret what Jesus is saying here. He's not saying that we ought to think poorly of ourselves just so that others might exalt us. The meaning of humility goes much deeper.

To get a better understanding of this essential virtue, we need to contemplate the humblest creature ever: the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her Magnificat, Mary says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me . . . He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly (Lk 1:46-52).

The Blessed Virgin Mary exemplified humility not because she thought poorly of herself. She was humble because she realized the truth - that she relied entirely upon God for everything good that she was and everything good that she had.

One might argue, however, that the Blessed Virgin Mary didn't have much of a reason to think poorly of herself anyway. After all, she was sinless. We, on the other hand, are sinful. So does this give us permission to walk around with our heads down, our shoulders slumped, beating our chests in shame?

Thanks to Divine Mercy, it shouldn't. While we need to feel sorry for our sins, if we have repented then we can hold our heads up high. Because just as the host at the wedding feast brought his lowly guest to a place of honor, the Lord, in His mercy, does the same for us.

But as Jesus says in His parable, the host can't exalt someone who has already exalted himself. Nor can he exalt someone obsessing over his or her past sins. A guest at the wedding feast with this mentality would have refused the host's request to sit at a higher position out of false-humility.

So in essence, excessive sorrow over our sins is just another form of pride. When we obsess over our sinfulness after we've already been forgiven, we tell God that we don't want His free gift of mercy. We tell Him that we believe we are powerful enough to commit sins even He can't forgive.

Of course, no sin we commit is too big for God. His mercy is too deep. At the same time, no amount of good works we do could merit His salvation. The gap between the Lord's holiness and our lowliness is too wide. In our humility we must, therefore, realize our need for His mercy, and see everything good in our lives as coming through the hands of a loving, merciful God.

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