Every culture has its proverbs—pithy sayings that give wisdom about how to live well. The readings from both Sirach and the Gospel pass on proverbial wisdom about the virtue of humility. This is earthy wisdom. The word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which means literally “on the ground,” deriving from humus, “earth.” So when we are advised to “humble yourself,” this is an invitation to be “grounded,” to be attentive to our connectedness with Earth. This entails as well consciousness of our interconnectedness with all persons and all Earth’s creatures and with God. As Ben Sira, who penned the Book of Sirach, avers, in humbling oneself one finds favor with God. In other words, through humility we gain proper consciousness of our place in relation to God.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives concrete examples of how one can go about growing in humility. He is at a dinner hosted by a leading Pharisee, and the invited guests are watching him closely. As the story progresses, there is growing hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees. Yet this is the third time he is reported to be dining with them (see also Lk 7:36-50; 11:37-54).
One way in which Jesus models authentic humility is by not cutting off those whose theology and pastoral approach differ from his own. In Jesus’ day, likes ate with likes. Eating together was a way of signifying shared values. By dining with those who opposed him, he signals that their shared common humanity forged a connection that superseded their differences.
Jesus first addresses the invited guests about choosing places at the table. The setting presumes that these are people with a certain measure of power and prestige. Banquets were occasions for people to enhance their social standing, and Jesus describes how guests would compete for honor. The way to gain the most honor, he says, is actually to take the lowest place. Choosing to sit with those whose status would not enhance one’s own personal honor could instead lead to growth in humility, that is, to engage in interactions with persons who are more earthy and to forge bonds with them. If such a person is then invited by the host to a higher position, he or she would be able to represent the perspectives of those at the other end of the table in the discussions and decisions that take place at the head.
Jesus then turns his attention to the host of the dinner and talks about how to formulate a guest list. From this angle, he again prods his hearers to break out of the strictures of likes eating with likes. The conversations at tables of the like-minded serve only to reinforce their own views, and the circle tightens as they reciprocate invitations to one another. Instead, Jesus proposes to the host, invite those unlike yourself, those with whom no one wants to associate. From a stance of humility, such a host recognizes the bondedness shared through common humanity that is stronger than differences in abilities or social positions.
It is easy to fall prey to false humility, pretending to take a lowly place in the hopes of receiving adulation and an invitation to come up higher. Or false humility can be manifest in persons whose self-esteem has never developed properly. True humility is grounded in earthy wisdom, a knowledge that all persons, no matter their circumstances, and all the created world share in an unbreakable interconnection of life given by God. We are equally loved and esteemed by the Holy One who desires the flourishing of all.