Cats and Humility
August 29, 2004
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Cats are not known for their humility. In fact thousands of years ago cats were worshipped as gods. Apparently they have not forgotten this. The life of a cat revolves around what the cat wants to do: to eat, to stretch, to be petted, to sleep. Cats seem to be able to exult themselves and get away with it. They are perhaps the only animals to which the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel do not apply. For what Jesus tells His disciples is that those who exult themselves will be humbled. It is only by humbling ourselves that we can be exulted.
Now what is humility? And why is it that Jesus thinks it is so important? Humility is the willingness to acknowledge our own limitations. Humility tells us that it is a benefit for us to own our weaknesses. We actually take a step forward when we are able to say: I am not as patient as I need to be with my family; I am not as creative as someone else might be; I find it difficult to say I am sorry; I hold prejudices against certain people; I am not a good listener. Through all these honest acknowledgements of our limitations we can move towards the truth without devaluing ourselves. Because honest humility allows us to acknowledge our weaknesses and at the same time realize that we remain people of goodness and dignity. We might not be perfect, but we have value. We might not be able to do everything, but we have something to contribute. Humility allows us to claim the truth about ourselves. But humility does not only influenced the understanding of ourselves. It changes our view of others. For humility allows us to see the goodness of others and to treat them with reverence.
Why is it that as we experience a death in our family, the small actions of kindness and thoughtfulness of others so deeply move us? It is because death makes us humble. It forces us to face our mortality and our need. In that humility we can more clearly see the goodness of others as they minister to us in our grief. Why is it that the alcoholics or those involved in 12-step programs can so clearly appreciate the value of life and create such tight bonds with others in the recovery community? Because their addiction makes them humble and they realize that every day they are clean is a gift. They will make any sacrifice would to be with a fellow alcoholic at a time of temptation. Why is it that people who struggle with cancer or any other serious disease are often so willing to extend themselves to others who struggle with the same sickness? It is because the cancer makes them humble, and they can more clearly see the reverence of their own life and the value and goodness of every other person.
People who are proud, who feel they can do it on their own, are not able to see as clearly the reverence that they should have for others. They tend to relate to others in terms of what the other can provide for them. That is why Jesus gives that strong teaching in today’s Gospel saying that we should not invite anyone to our house that can repay us, but rather the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame. He says this to make it very clear that our association with others should not flow from our use of them but from their value as people. The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber was once asked a very common question, “Where is God?” Buber rightly avoided the cliché “God is everywhere.” What Buber said was “God is found between people.” God is found in the relationships that bind us to one another. The proud person does not really see the essential quality of human relationships. He or she might be a very open caring person, willing to give to others but unaware of his or her own limitations. The proud person does not see how crucially we need one another. The person of humility does in fact recognize the need for relationships and therefore finds God “between us.”
Cats believe they are self sufficient, that they can do it own their own. Christians know that they are not. They understand that God is to be found when we acknowledge our limitations and recognize our radical need for one another. This fundamental insight is what makes love the highest of all Christian virtues. For love tells us that it is in our relationship to each other that we find God. Love is, indeed, the only way to God. But if that is true, then today’s Gospel is important. Because if love is the only road to God, it is only the humble who will walk upon it.
September 1, 2013
William Allen White was one of the great newspapermen of the last century. He was the editor of the Emporia Gazette, and he was a hardcore Republican. But on one occasion as a reporter he was assigned to cover a Democratic fundraising event in his native state of Kansas. When the clergy person who was meant to give the opening prayer suddenly canceled, the organizer of the event saw White sitting in the audience and approached him to ask whether he would be willing to give the invocation. White responded, “No, I don’t think I can do that, and for two reasons. First of all, I’m not skilled in the art of public prayer. And secondly, I really don’t want the Lord to know that I’m here.”
Political convictions run deep. They often divide us, today perhaps more than ever. So to give a homily addressing a political issue is a dangerous enterprise at best. But it is one in which I feel impelled today to engage. The homily you are about to hear is neither a Republic homily nor a Democratic homily. It is an honest attempt to relate the words of Jesus’ in today’s gospel to the political realities in which we live.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples that when they hold a dinner, they should not only invite their family, friends, and neighbors, but should also invite the poor, the crippled, and the blind. This attitude of welcoming and inclusiveness is not a unique characteristic of Jesus. It comes from his Jewish heritage. Throughout the Old Testament, God is consistently presented as the champion and advocate for the lowly. God continually calls Israel to welcome the immigrant and the refugee so that they might live among them. Jesus knows this sense of welcoming and he makes it his own. In the gospel of Matthew he tells us that when we welcome the stranger we welcome him (Matthew 25:35).
Now it is on the scriptural basis that Catholic teaching on immigration is founded. We live in a world which is divided into countries. But the land and the resources of each country comes as a gift from God, a gift that is not meant to be hoarded but shared. Yes, we are Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Egyptians, and Japanese. But prior to those distinctions of nationality, we are all sons and daughters of one God who has both created us and saved us. It is on these religious foundations that Catholic social teaching on immigration insists that each country has two fundamental duties both of which need to be implemented and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is that every country is to secure its borders and within those borders to pass just laws that promote the common good. The second duty of every country is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and out of respect for the human person. In countries that have been particularly blessed, like our own, there is an increased responsibility to welcome those who seek security and a livelihood for their families, so that they can live in our midst.
It is upon these scriptural and moral principles that we move now to politics. People of every political party admit that our immigration system is broken. There are presently over 11 million undocumented individuals living in our borders. The United States Bishops have long advocated for immigration reform based upon five moral principles which are enumerated today in your bulletin. [Our bishops support Immigration Reform which: (1) Provides a path to citizenship for undocumented persons living in the United States; (2) Preserves and strengthens family unity as a cornerstone of our national immigration system; (3) Provides legal avenues for low-skilled immigrants to come and work in the United States; (4) Restores due process for individuals caught up in the immigration system; (5) Promotes efforts that will address the root causes of migration, such as poverty and persecution.] But chief among these principles is a path to citizenship for those undocumented members living in our midst. Past attempts to pass immigration reform have failed. But recently a group of legislators both Republicans and Democrats have come together with a proposal that has passed the United States Senate with an overwhelming majority and is now in front of the House of Representatives with its future unsure. This is the time for us who are followers of Christ to contact our representatives in the House and to encourage them to make this new immigration bill law. It is not a perfect bill. No legislative efforts are. But it is a significant advance over our present immigration policy.
The way to contact your representatives can be found in the bulletin and on our website where there is also additional information about these issues. I do encourage you to act to let your representatives in the House know that this bill deserves passage. And remember, when you do so, you will not be following a Republic or a Democratic strategy. You will be following the teaching of Jesus.
August 28, 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Today’s gospel may surprise us and perhaps perplex us. In the gospel it seems that Jesus is advocating an approach of self-service. He instructs his disciples to take the lowest place so that the host may come and ask them to move up higher. Thereby they will gain the esteem of their companions at table. So how can we connect this strategy to gain the admiration of others to the gospel? Is discipleship about growing in the esteem of other people? Does not Jesus call us to serve others rather than to serve ourselves?
Not entirely. The truth is that whenever we serve another person we also serve ourselves. Whenever we do good for someone else, it is a good from which we benefit. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the great theologians of our church, taught that whenever we choose to do a good thing, we make that choice because our heart knows that it will be good for us. Even if the choice we make is difficult and involves the sacrifice of our time and comfort, doing that good thing is something from which we benefit.
People who give their lives to save the life of another person are certainly serving their neighbor, but they are also serving themselves. In that heroic action they know that they are doing something good and valuable, something that can rightly be admired by others. They understand that their sacrifice is not something that others soon will forget. Parents are always sacrificing for their children, but they are also sacrificing for themselves. The greatest satisfaction that a parent can experience is to see that their son or daughter has grown and is successful, and to understand that they contributed to the goodness of their child. People who work for justice in our world, fighting poverty or undermining structures that support violence or hate, are certainly doing good for others, but they are also doing good for themselves. At the end of the day they will know that their life was given for something of value, something that made a difference.
So the good thing that we do for someone else is also a good thing we do for us, and there is nothing wrong about seeking that good. Sometimes we imaging following Jesus as a way of negating ourselves or putting ourselves down. But true discipleship is for the benefit of disciple. It is a way to exalt the disciple because of the good things that he or she does. We are God’s daughters and sons and so it only makes sense that God would want us to be exalted, that God would want us to grow in our goodness and in our value.
When we serve another person, we serve ourselves. That is why Jesus in today’s gospel is not ashamed to ask his disciples to grow in the esteem of others because of the positive choices they make. We should not be ashamed of exalting ourselves for the good decisions we make, as long as we make those decisions for the right reason.
Trusting the Host
September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Eating a meal was a very structured affair in the ancient world. Guests were seated according to a clear hierarchy of importance. The place of honor was at the right hand of the host. The person who sat at the left hand was in second place. Other places of importance went down from there. At the very end of the table were the places for people of lowly importance: children, slaves, and women. (It was a patriarchal culture.) This order of status continues to our present day. It is usually dependent on how much we are willing to pay. If you are willing to pay, you can have seats close to the stage at a concert, you will not have to wait in line at amusement parks, and you will have more leg room when you fly the friendly skies.
Jesus uses this hierarchical order in today’s gospel. But what does he mean to say to us? Contrary to first impressions, Jesus is not giving us tips on how to secure the best place at dinner. The key to his words, as he says himself, is that his words are a parable. A parable is meant to reveal something about our relationship to God and to God’s kingdom. Usually the meaning of a parable rests on one key insight. Here is the insight I would suggest for today’s parable: it is all about the host. The host is the main character in the parable. The host determines who will sit in the place of honor and who will not. And the host in this parable is inclined to move people. He asks one man to take a higher place and another a lower one.
When we read Jesus’ words in the lens of a parable, he is telling us that the host is God, and the place we find ourselves in life is a result of God’s will. The parable also tells us that our place is likely to change. So if you find yourself today in a lowly place, if you are crushed because of the loss of someone you love in death and not sure that you can go on, this parable is a parable of hope. At any time God, the host, can come to you and say, “Here is something new. Here is a new beginning. My friend, move up higher!” If you find yourself working in a difficult perhaps even unjust situation, this parable asks you to hold on. A job is not forever, and God has the power to make things better.
On the other hand, if you find yourself today in a place of honor, if everything is going well, be glad. But know that you are not guaranteed that place always. You can be justly proud of your children and what they have accomplished professionally and personally. Rejoice. But remember it only takes one phone call for you to realize that the future of your family might now include divorce or dealing with addiction. Then you would have to move to a lower place. If you are blessed with good health, use it and enjoy it. If you can say that I am seventy years old and I still walk twenty miles a week, good for you. But remember in time you will be asked to take a lower place in that area of ability.
Our places move in life. Sometimes they move up, and sometimes they move down. Sometimes life is better, and sometimes life becomes more difficult. This parable tells us that God is our host who accompanies us in those changes. Sometimes God comes to us and says, “My friend, move up higher.” Other times God says, “I need you to sit here for a while.” But here is the good news of the parable: God, our host, loves us. He has invited us to the wedding banquet of his love. Therefore, in the end, the place in which we find ourselves is less important than the fact that we are at the table. The parable asks us to trust the host. To accept where we have been placed, always remembering that God’s love for us is secure. Whether we find ourselves seated high or low, God has invited us to the wedding banquet. And our host will certainly see that we have enough to eat.