In today’s gospel reading from Luke Jesus puts another Pharisee in his place and offers him some practical advice to boot. He tells him how to win friends and influence people with one simple direction, which I’ll paraphrase: Never pay for first class; let it be a perk of frequent humility.
If you sit in the lowest position, chances are your host will invite you to come on up, Jesus seems to be saying. But if that were all he was saying, he’d be no better than Miss Manners, advising humility just for show. Jesus practiced what he preached, and he was constantly modeling humility as a way of life—from his birth in a stable, his baptism in a river, his after-dinner foot-washing service to his death on a cross.
St Francis of Assisi adapted the master’s teaching into another important piece of advice: Preach the Gospel, and when necessary, use words. Jesus didn’t have to be born of humble means…or even be baptized by someone who admitted to not being worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal strap (yet someone Jesus considered to be the greatest among men). But the church Jesus founded is built on sacraments—outward signs that give grace. Jesus was very economical with words, but extravagant with symbolism. He wanted Cousin John to baptize him in a public place as an example to all. And he insisted on washing his disciples’ feet because he wanted them to do the same. And he carried his cross to Calvary so we would be inspired to bear our own comparatively light burdens with humility. These acts of Jesus make the gospels come to life, and keep his teachings relevant for each succeeding generation.
Jesus inspired our generation’s Francis to live those teachings by how he presents himself to the world as our pope. Everything Pope Francis does is an adaptation of Jesus’ admonition to be humble—from the dwelling in which he lives, to the car in which he rides, to the space he leaves between himself and the public (very little). I don’t know how long he’ll be able to keep this up before some crackpot tries to immortalize himself with an evil deed, but I’m sure whatever happens, Christ’s example of humility as practiced by his followers will outlive the proud ambitions of Pharisees of every age.