Our readings today are centred on the virtue and practice of humility and the gift of wisdom which can alone sustain it:
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favour with God.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
In the Gospel reading Our Blessed Lord openly spoke of humility:
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Now that was the Jewish, and the scriptural, way of saying, ‘Whoever exalts himself, God will humble; but the one who humbles himself, God will exalt.’
It is important to recognize this, because otherwise Our Lord's little parable could seem somewhat hypocritical:
When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you.
On the human level such behaviour saps of hypocrisy I say, where outward pretence alone seeks to make a good impression and so lead to the desired invitation "friend, move up higher". That can, indeed, happen with men who are fixated on worldly appearances and appreciate little or nothing of heavenly realities.
With God, however, things are much different, for in all the events of our lives here on earth God sees and is concerned about their effect on our personalities, above all on whether they further or frustrate the restoration of our original oneness with God, which, having been lost by the sin of Adam, Jesus came to give back and lead to its ultimate fulfilment. In other words, throughout our lives we are being formed in the likeness of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, for the Father; and whether we are aware of it or not every single event of our lives has some effect on us, if not directly, then by the reaction it provokes in us …. That is exactly what is meant when Jesus and the Scriptures declare, and when His Church is not afraid to teach in His name, that God sees all, weighs all, and ultimately will judge all:
I know also, my God, that You test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. (1 Chronicles 29:17)
Whoever exalts himself, God will humble; but the one who humbles himself God will exalt.
Jesus, the visiting Rabbi Who probably had spoken at the preceding service in the synagogue, was now reclining at the centre table with His host -- as was fitting for the guest of honour -- while the other guests were at tables circling round the room, at a respectful distance but, nevertheless, well within hearing distance of the host and his Guest should either of them choose to address the others present. Therefore Jesus, having been invited as an acknowledged teacher and spiritual guide, did not speak trivialities at table -- as we, for the most part, do today when jokes are so often the approved medium of conversation for receptions and social occasions – but rather He chose simple words of wisdom portraying an everyday situation to recall a profound truth, as indeed befitted a young Rabbi reputed to have a most remarkable and unusual ability to expound deep things of God in terms of ordinary human awareness and experience.
And so, Jesus was in no way belittling His host and fellow guests when He chose to speak about what He had just seen happening in this very room where they were all gathered together; indeed, far from belittling them, He would open their eyes, alert their minds, and indeed, hopefully, humble their hearts by revealing what was actually going on around and within them:
When you are invited (to a banquet), 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.
Listening attentively, and perhaps a little critically, to this much-discussed Rabbi, His fellows at table would be immediately aware that His words did not refer so much to the earthly feast they were at that moment enjoying, but rather to the eternal feast of heaven hosted by the Holy One to Whom the hearts and minds of all men are as an open book, and that He was offering them not criticism so much as spiritual enlightenment and understanding when He went on to say:
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled (which, as I say, meant for a Jew, whoever exalts himself, God will humble), but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (by God)."
Jesus, having empathised with the human feelings of one publicly asked to move up from a lowly position to one much more prominent, really wanted His hearers to gain thereby some appreciation – not just some notional awareness – but to actually gain some sensitive feeling for, and insight into, what might be the heavenly bliss of one exalted in similar fashion at God's heavenly banquet. They were being led to experience something -- be it ever so little -- of heavenly truth and wisdom: to appreciate the present reality of their own spiritual life with their whole being, mind, heart, and human sensitivity, as distinct from just being notionally aware of it in their abstract thinking.
The second reading, likewise, tries to help us gain some feeling for the religious significance and depths of our presence here at Holy Mass today by recalling the terror experienced by the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when the Lord was speaking to Moses at the top:
For you have not come (as did your forefathers) to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.
The people of Israel had been stricken with awesome fear and apprehension at what had been commanded them: "If so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow." And indeed, so terrifying had been the occasion that Moses himself had said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling."
In other words: You haven't come to an erupting volcano (and we have all seen, at least on TV, something of the horrors of such titanic violence)! Not at all! You have come to something much more fearsome:
You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the Judge of all, and 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.
He is saying, that the People of Israel -- even Moses himself -- were rightly terrified by the awesome events on Mount Sinai when God gave the Law to Israel; how could anyone, therefore, fail to be humbled now by the much greater glory of our present liturgy which is, as it were, knocking on the portals of the heavenly Jerusalem where there are gathered myriads of angels, the Church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and the spirits of the righteous made perfect? How, above all, could anyone fail to hear, refuse to listen to and obey, the voice which speaks with the majesty and authority of Jesus the Mediator and the supremely awesome glory and power of God the eternal Judge?
But, wait a minute, it might be objected, we don't see anything of all that; we only see the Church in our day, with good and bad members, the Church with a past history replete with traces of glory but also so full of warts that you can easily give your whole attention to nothing else but wart-watching if you were so disposed. We don't see anything other than that.
Precisely, that is all a surface glance can perceive; but as we heard earlier, God loves and reveals His secrets to the humble, and such humble ones, to whom God reveals His secrets through the gift of faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit, are those thereby enabled to recognize -- beneath the very ordinary outward appearances of Mother Church -- that hidden splendour of the city of the living God, where Jesus Himself, and all the blessed in Him and with Him, are to be seen bathed in the glory of God the Father.
Today therefore, we have before us texts recommending humility before God; texts that show us how far and how frightfully pride can lead us astray, as the first reading could have also quoted:
There is no cure for the proud man's malady.
Such a person hears Jesus' words in the Gospel and, remaining on the surface of the words, decides that they smack of hypocrisy; and, being proud, is unwilling and unable to ask, to search for, to seek, the true meaning. Pride speaks secretly in his heart telling him that he is not one to be hoodwinked, he can understand what he reads well enough, and the words he has heard are hypocritical, typical of so much religious preaching and practice.
Proud people today look at Mother Church in that way. They see only what they can recognize: pride, lust for power, and all the other warts which, alas, do indeed make up part of Mother Church here on earth. But, as we have said, they cannot perceive, they are blind to, the inner reality: the presence of divine beauty, truth, goodness and power, lying just below the human covering of frailty and failure. St. Paul explains this truth most clearly for us (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) and, in so doing, shows us the glory of Mother Church when he tells us:
The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For "who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
People of God, by the grace of the Spirit given to Mother Church we do, indeed, have the mind of Christ. That Spirit, however, can only produce fruit in our lives if we humbly allow ourselves to be led by Him along the way of Jesus to that heavenly feast at which human pride has no place.
Finally, Jesus, in telling the Pharisee, His host, how best to choose guests for any lunch or dinner he might want to give, surely gives us also an important insight into our own invitation to heaven brought to us at His Father’s behest by Jesus Himself:
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.
People of God, such were we before the Father called us and Jesus redeemed us. Let us therefore humble our human pride before God as -- in, and together with, Jesus -- we now offer ourselves and our most heartfelt worship and praise to God in the liturgy and sacrifice of Holy Mass. Here, there is, already, a banquet prepared for us at which Jesus serves us and bestows upon us His own Most Holy Body and Precious Blood, thereby refreshing and deepening the Gift of His Most Holy Spirit, Who is to dwell and, indeed, abide in us, gradually forming us here on earth until, ultimately, we are able -- fittingly and fully -- to participate in the eternal liturgy and banquet of the family of God in His Kingdom. Let us, therefore, receive Holy Communion with humble and trustful hearts; and let us pray that the Holy Spirit might form us, in and with Jesus, so that we may attain, not to places higher or more prestigious than those of our neighbours, but to seats as close as possible to the God and Father Who is the source and centre of all our longings and aspirations.