Summary: "Jesus did that to the extent of surrendering Himself to the Father’s will and dying on the cross for our salvation. You don’t get more other-centered than that."
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016
Almost forty years ago, the movie Alien frightened a couple of generations of Americans with its notion that a monster could grow inside someone’s chest and then burst out to cause death and destruction. But that notion was not new. Jesus ben Sira, author of our first reading, came up with the notion when he wrote: “The affliction of the proud has no healing, for a plant of wickedness has taken root in him.” Thomas Merton taught that “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
The culture is no help with pride, any more than any other area of life. We are from our earliest days told how wonderful we are by our parents, grandparents, and every other relative–unless we are a younger brother or sister. Those of you with siblings know that one cannot become too self-centered in a large family; there is always a brother or sister to remind us of our various weaknesses. But large families are no longer the norm. The epitome of this phenomenon may be families in mainland China, where for two generations the communist rulers have decreed that families may have only one child. Since male children were favored in that culture, many female offspring were either aborted or otherwise disposed of. The result is what is called the “little emperor,” a coddled only child who is the sole hope of the parents and grandparents. It’s easy to develop an exaggerated opinion of oneself in such circumstances.
Our Gospel takes a little different look at pride. It’s almost like a wisdom parable, in which Jesus, very much in the style of Jesus ben Sira, gives practical advice for behavior in exalted company. “Take the lowest seat of honor,” He tells us. It reminds me of the old poem, “He who is down need fear no fall.” There’s no way for a private to be demoted–at least I don’t know of any. When you assume a humble stance, there’s a chance for elevation. When you take a place of honor, the host just might have that seat in mind for somebody else, and then you get embarrassed. Some good practical advice.
As usual, however, Jesus has more in mind. There’s always a moral lesson. “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus wants us to ask ourselves this question: “who is most important to me?” Children who can answer that question, if they are brutally honest with the question, would say, “Well, I am, of course.” That leads sometimes to very bratty behavior. But Jesus wants us to be perfect, complete human beings, as He was. He wants us to be divinized, suited for eternal union with the Blessed Trinity. The only way we can become what God destined us to be is to act and think and feel as Jesus did. He was so much the incarnation of the Divine Love that He treated everyone else as more important than Himself. He did that to the extent of surrendering Himself to the Father’s will and dying on the cross for our salvation. You don’t get more other-centered than that.
So now look at the Gospel in the light of this reality. St. Paul expressed it so well in his letter to the church at Philippi: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Isn’t that exactly how Jesus lived out the saying “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”? Isn’t that why we can talk about His sprinkled blood being more eloquent than that of Abel, the first martyr?
What practical application, then, should we take into this next week? How do we live out the Gospel between now and the Labor Day weekend? We can take heart from our patron’s first encyclical, written soon after he became Pope a hundred and thirteen years ago: we must do our part in the struggle to win large numbers of people to Christ, so that they can, in turn, become “promoters of His knowledge and love which are the road to true and solid happiness.” This is how he wanted the Church to “restore all things in Christ.”