A few weeks ago we talked about that great honker of a dinner party that Jesus went to, only to have a hooker wash His feet and pour oil on Him. Well it seems that Jesus 1.) went to an awful lot of dinner parties and 2.) usually made some kind of scene while at said dinner parties. The dinner party St. Luke just told us about was no exception. My friend Father Marshall Shelly talked about “sitting below the salt” at dinner parties, and I admit to not having heard that expression before. Fr. Marshall said that “In days of old, salt was a precious and valuable commodity. (The word salary comes from the Roman practice of paying soldiers in salt…and to be worth one’s salt is a complement even today!) At major feasts and celebrations, a cellar of salt was often placed on the tables as a demarcation between those guests of import and those of, well, less import. To sit above the salt was an honor. To sit below was to be reminded of your place in the feast.” I’m not sure where the salt was on the dinner table at which Jesus was about to sit, but wherever it was, it became the occasion of scandal in today’s Gospel.
And, as it is so often with Jesus, the scandal is an unexpected one. Jesus, of course, didn’t burp at the table or anything, instead He gave an impromptu lesson on place, on humility. We’re all probably familiar with Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: it’s hard to define but, as he said, “I know it when I see it.” Humility is like that in a way; humility is hard to define, it takes different forms, and like Helen Nielsen said, “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.”
Pride is pretty indecent when it shows as well, and that’s what Jesus said when watching everyone scramble for a place of honor at that dinner party. “Do not sit down at the place of honor,” Jesus said, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” That kind of gives new depth to the concept of place cards at wedding receptions, right? Even Jesus says “know your place,” find the salt on the dinner table of life and then honestly evaluate where it is you should be sitting in relation to others. It’s better to practice humility than be humiliated.
So the first thing to keep in mind is what humility doesn’t look like. Humility doesn’t look like pride. Pride says “I deserve.” I deserve, for reason of my success or age or race or station in life, I deserve to sit next to the host, I deserve the place of honor, I deserve whatever. Pride says “Because I am who I am, I get to have, I get to use, to abuse, I get to live as if others live for my benefit.”
So what is the opposite of that, what is the opposite of pride? The opposite of pride is Jesus. Like St. Paul said, Jesus is the living form of humility, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, in other words, it was not prideful of Jesus to put Himself on the same level as His Father, but He rather made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. St. Paul continues: and being found in the fashion of a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death–even the death of the cross. Jesus gave up not only what He had been given by His Father but also His place; God the Son humbled Himself to death. This humility did not go unrewarded: St. Paul goes on to say that because Jesus did what He did, God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in Heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Jesus’ ultimate humility was rewarded ultimately. Our humility had its rewards as well. The Bible tells us that the rewards of humility are wisdom, honor, unity, rewards in Heaven, eternal life with the living God. How do we get those rewards? How do we practice humility in Bordentown in 2010? Because humility is so hard to define in actionable terms, here are some first steps.
First, avoid pride, avoid what King David called “presumptuous sins.” Anytime you think “I deserve,” make an honest self-assessment and remember what we all actually deserve.
Second, practice having a sense of humor. Seriously. Many a righteous movement fell flat because the people involved lacked any sense of their own silliness in even trying to make a difference in the world. Taking yourself seriously is the first step toward pride, so laugh with others and at yourself.
Third, humility is shown in telling others what you are grateful for. Humility is seen in letting others know that you do not control your own fate, you are not the captain of your soul, that you approach your neighbor as a servant and your God on your knees.
And finally, practicing humility, I think, has everything to do with practicing gratitude. There is no humility without the giving of thanks, and if we are constantly giving thanks to God for all that He has given us, then we can’t help being humble. Remember, Jesus took on what we deserve, all that punishment for sin, so that we can have what only He deserves, eternal life in heavenly glory. And if that’s not humbling and reason enough for giving thanks, I don’t know what is.