The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

We know about, or at least have heard about the deadly sins.  These are those sins that drag us down into further sin, and really work to cut us off from the relationship with Christ that we hold dear.  So we remember that these sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.  But for each of these deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue.  Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride.  Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Jesus tells us quite clearly today: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  But not many of us really seek to be humbled, do we?  When we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.”  As you think about humble people do you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious? Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.”

But that’s not how Jesus sees it.  He doesn’t see humble people as wimpy or weak-minded.  He sees them as leaders: “The greatest among you,” he tells us, “must be your servant.”  So do you want to be a leader?  Do you want people to look up to you?  Do you want to be a role model for your children?  Well, if you do, you need to be a servant of others.

When I think about humility, I often think about a man named Mike, who was a member of my home parish.  Mike was one of my favorite people in the world.  He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, over forty years ago now.  Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now.  But Mike never took advantage of anybody; Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.”  He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him.  He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen.  When Mike retired, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.

Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer.  The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs.  This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve.  Several years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake.  It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long.  His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass.  Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it.  Mike was the kind of servant leader that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel.

The attitude of humility is counter-cultural.  We want the places of honor at banquets and wherever we go; that’s just human nature.  We may not wear phylacteries or tassels when we come in to worship, but we are pleased when someone notices how wonderful is something that we have done.  And Jesus would have nothing of all this.

I don’t really think that Jesus was saying there shouldn’t be people we call “father” or “teacher” or “master.”  Sometimes non-Catholics will cite this passage to dismiss the value of the Priesthood.  But they are taking one verse out of context and miss the point: Jesus knew well that the world needs leaders.  But the message here is that those leaders must be the servants of all.  They shouldn’t be in the position to have the titles of honor.  Rather the title should recognize the servant leadership that is the heart of who they are.  It’s something I pray to get better at every day; maybe you do too.  And so we need to reflect on how willing we have been to be servants.  Have we reached out to the poor in some way?  Have we given adequately of our time, talent and treasure for the mission of the Church?  Do we carry out our roles in our family, job, or community with love and compassion and humility?

We can see how Jesus modeled leadership in his own life.  Indeed, he is not asking us to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was clearly foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

At this Mass, we have been invited to a very important banquet, and we ourselves are completely unworthy of being here.  And I include myself in that statement, brothers and sisters.  Yet, through grace, through the love of our God, we have been given an exalted place at the banquet table.  Realizing how great the gift is and how unworthy of it we are is a very humbling experience.  In that humility, we are called to go out and feed those who need to know how much God loves them.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

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