We are taught as children the importance of honesty and decency, but those qualities are threatened when we learn to expect rewards for exercising them. That’s why we must avoid self-righteousness at all costs and learn the art of self-examination.
This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Sirach (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) focuses on the righteousness of humility. We are addressed as though we are children being introduced to this concept for the first time.
My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.
There’s a danger of entering into a quid pro quo in our relationship with God (acting humble to earn His love). But Sirach’s section on humility concludes with a warning, knowing our tendency to corruption and inflated self-worth:
In matters that are beyond you do not meddle, when you have been shown more than you can understand. Indeed, many are the conceits of human beings; evil imaginations lead them astray.
Our humility can be motivated by a need to imagine ourselves “humbler than thou,” along with any resulting exaltation from anyone who will give it. It is that “Adam & Eve” desire for a share of God’s honor that makes this Sunday’s excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) particularly resonant today. The first blood ever shed was Abel’s, at the hands of his brother Cain who was jealous of the honor God took from his brother’s sacrifice. The human blood wasted by Cain was eventually redeemed by the blood Christ invested. Our Savior’s was an act of supreme humility, therefore to be truly righteous we must look for inspiration from …
“… the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.”
God, who by His nature is exalted, took on our nature to teach us a humility whose only motivation is love. Yet because he was one of us, he knew humanity’s lust for rewards, so in our reading from Luke (Lk 14:1, 7-14) he teaches us in the spirit of the Book of Sirach—knowing the peer-driven children we are, with a Cain-like desire for status:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. … 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 every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Maybe God doesn’t mind when His humble children enjoy a bit of exaltation aimed their way now and then. The trick for us is to avoid pride in our humility and to learn how to bask in the rewards of joyfully exalting others.