If this week’s readings contain any one warning about the human condition it is that too often we are concerned about honor. In the gospel account it is connected with desiring seats of honor. There is nothing wrong with honor or being honored; what is disordered is when a person seeks the bestowal of honor as a right, something earned, or demanded. Then honor is just the surface symptom of Pride – a sin as deadly as they come and as old as time. As Proverb 16 tells us, “Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Pr 16:18).
The apostles are even cursed with pride from time to time. They want the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and left when He comes in glory. It seems as though they think they have earned the spots. Jesus has to periodically remind them that the authentic stance of Christian discipleship in the world is this: “If anyone wishes to be first, he [or she] shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mk 9:30-37; Mt 20:27).
To be clear, wanting seats at Jesus’ side are the not problem. Consider Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The honor/shame system of her day said that she should be helping her sister Mary prepare the meal for Jesus and his disciples, yet she takes a seat at Jesus’ feet. Jesus’ response is to tell her she has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. (Luke 10:38-42) But clearly, why she wants the seat next to Jesus is very different from the apostles.
In those moments, Mary is in right relationship to God, the apostles are not.
What are the attributes of being in right relationship to God? With no thought that I could possibly cover the fullness of those attributes here, let me suggest one: humility. In the very first reading, the sage Ben Sira writes: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” The gospel reminds us: “… the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint, wrote that humility is the guardian and the gateway of all the other virtues. If Bonaventure is correct, it would seem we should have some insight into humility as the gateway to being in right relationship before God.
Clearly humility is a good thing…. But what is it exactly?
Interestingly, across the religious and philosophical traditions, they all seem to have the same take on humility. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and more – all hold that humility is one virtue you have to get correct – and all, in their own way, describe it as being in the correct relationship to God.
St. Francis of Assisi says this of humility: for what a person is before God, that he is and no more. (Admonition 19). Francis admonishes his brother to live in a way that models Christ’s call to discipleship in the Gospel so that Humility stands at the center of this way of being-in-the-world. He reminds the brothers that they should be willing to do for their brothers and sisters what is needed to do without thought of repayment, incurred debt, or quid pro quo. When you think about it, that describes Jesus’ way of being-in-the-world.
So, whether lauded for success and good works or despised because of misunderstanding or tough choices, the true disciple should remain stalwart in holding onto that place that is proper to a follower of Jesus. As St. Francis wrote
Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more. (Admonition 19).
Know who you are – strengths and weaknesses. Give praise to God for you talents and ask God to sustain you in moments of weakness.
Know that all you are and can be is from the grace of God. Give thanks and praise to Him.
Know that you are gifted, not for yourself, but to build up the Body of Christ through those gifts
Know that a willingness of heart to do what needs to be done for a brother or sister in Christ is the beginning of humility.
But even on the days when your heart is not in the right place, when all is off kilter, and there is an interior hardness, your smile, your voice, and your hands can be the moment of Grace for another.
In the humble, even if imperfect, doing, Grace finds a way to travels from your smile, voice, or hands, into your heart. The moment of Grace for another can become a moment of Grace for you, to show you the way of humility
In each moment we are gifted and flawed. We are not better or worse via the praise of others. We are what we are before God, that and not more.
What we are before God, in every moment, is loved..
The question that remains, is will we love even the least among us? The humble heart will love.
And in the end of days, the humble will hear the Lord say, “My friend, move up to a higher position” at the banquet table of the Lord.