Uruguay’s former president, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, was dubbed the “world’s poorest president” for good reason.
A former Tupamaros guerrilla fighter in the 1960s and ’70s, Mujica was shot multiple times and spent 14 years in jail in harsh, isolated conditions. When he was elected Uruguayan president in 2009, Mujica donated 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity and ditched the lavish presidential palace, opting instead to live in his ramshackle farm with his wife. For the longest time, his sole personal asset amounted to a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.
Mujica also fearlessly admonished other world leaders for their unfettered allowance of globalization and inequality. Although Mujica has left politics, yet the testimony of his humility lingers.
As the liturgical year moves closer to the end, the Holy Mother, the Church continues to remind her children about the essentials of life. On this 22nd sunday in ordinary time, we are reminded of one of the most important and central virtues, humility. Humility is a mother virtue and an attribute of God who though omnipotent but never ceases to bow low in order to enter into relationship with his creatures. Jesus is a true image of this “humble God” depicted in the kenosis theology of St. Paul: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. “He emptied himself”, taking the form of a servant; and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he became obedient until death, even death on a Cross…” (Phil. 2:6-11). The rest of this song; “Therefore God has highly exalted him and gave him a name which is above every name…” is a pure expression of the reward of humility which the readings today talked about, especially the first reading and the gospel.
FIRST READING: Sirach 3:17-20.28-29
The book of Sirach (190/180 BC) also known in its Greek translation as Ecclesiasticus, belongs to the category of writings known as ‘Wisdom literature’ (genre of literature common in the ancient Near East, consisting of teachings of sages about divinity and virtue). The author Ben Sira espoused different themes, one of which he acknowledged worldly wisdom. But for him, true Wisdom comes from God through the mediation of the Law. It is this Wisdom that enables for other virtues. Thus the preacher’s message today is a candid advice on humility as an important key for a successful ‘followership’ of God. He sees humility as a conditio sine qua non to obtaining favours from God. On the other hand, he condemned pride as a disease.
Is the preacher right in his perception of humility? Yes, because it is absolutely impossible to enter into relationship with God if man does not acknowledge his “nothingness” (in the sense of a created being who could not have existed of his own accord) before the greatness of God. Hence, humility is a mother virtue which opens the door for a deeper love for God.
Is the preacher right in his perception of pride as a disease? Yes, because it makes one to believe that the world begins and ends with him and around him which in fact is a blind deception. It is this tendency that challenges the supremacy and centrality of God in the life of a proud fellow. It is a serious affliction which the author describes as incurable. But the good news is that the only healing or antidote to pride is when the soul of man begins to imitate Christ meek and humble.
SECOND READING: Hebrews 12: 18-19.22-24
Today’s Letter to the Hebrews is a perfect description of the nature of the Eternal Homeland. The author started by telling his audience that their destination which he described as “Mount Zion” and “Jerusalem” is indeed the City of God himself. How beautiful it is to use familiar images to transport an important message! In order to communicate the concept of heaven to his diaspora Jewish converts to christianity, the author brings them face to face with images they knew very well, and which constitute important part of their history.
The first instance of the word “Zion” is found in the book of 2 Samuel: ” But David captured the citadel of Zion, that is, the city of David” (2 Sam 5:7). And just like in the books of 1 Kings 8:1; 1Chronicles 11:5 and 2 Chronicles 5:2, Zion and the city of David are synonymous. David as we know, was held as the most important king in the history of the Israelites and was acknowledged as a man after God’s heart (1 Sam 13:14). However, the concept of “Mount Zion” (which is a hill on which the city of David was built) employed by the author depicts the “Eternal City” occupied no longer by David but by the “Eternal King”, God Himself. He contrasted this Eternal City with the earthly city when he says that it is a city free of blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and tempest etc. It is rather a City that harbours only the humble like the angels, the saints around the Supreme judge, God, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.The proud cannot be there, since it will be difficult for them to worship the Lord.
This message is a reminder about the eschatos (the end) and a call to the Christians not to lose sight of this City as that is their destination. But of course, it is a destination that can only be reached through their imitation of Christ. Hence, the citizens of this City must clothe themselves with humility like Christ whose “mediatorship” was made possible through his humble submission to the will of the Father.
GOSPEL: Luke 14: 1.7-14
The gospel reading climaxed the message of today’s liturgy of the word. Christ himself, the model of humility exhorts his audience that, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”
After the interlude whereby Luke narrates Jesus’ healing of a man on a sabbath and defending the healing, the evangelist immediately brings his audience to a scene of meal. In this scene, Jesus tackles the social matrix of his time with a deep sense of wisdom that calls for change.
In the Greco-Roman society ( the recipients of the Gospel of Luke) during the time of Jesus, social ranking was quite common. And meals were moments that reveal tendencies of social disparities. Jesus who was probably invited as a celebrity proved not interested in such a title. He rather used the occasion to tackle without delay the pride of men and their high level of discrimination. His reactions were in two ways. In the first place, he criticized the tendency of seeking for the most prestigious place at table and immediately calls his audience to embrace the virtue of humility. The second was a counter-cultural message that touches the fabric of social structure during his time. He spoke directly to the man who had given the dinner and to all present to restructure their relational attitude in order to accommodate the poor, because the latter had no place in such a society whereby reciprocity is considered a way of patronage and which only existed among the rich. Jesus rather called for social inclusion.
Thus, in the world of struggle and competition, the target of people is to dominate and take the first place. And what is this first place all about? Is it anything else other than the place of honour? After all people will hail me for my success. Surely it is good to go for the best. But do people really take time to think of the hidden tendency or consequence of always lobbying for the first place?
Jesus’ teaching today is not an open condemnation of the search for the best of place, rather a warning to guard against a tendency that comes with it, which is pride. When someone is use to taking the first place in life and realizes how people hail his success, then without knowing it, pride will creep in. And once infested with pride, then the healing becomes difficult if not impossible as Sirach tells in the first readings. On the other hand, when the human person is evaluated by his achievements and social ranking, then the poor will never have a place in human society. And then the society will lose its essence, because the human person is defined by his “beingness” and not by what he has.
1. IT PAYS TO BE HUMBLE:
To those who have Machiavellian and Nietzschean domineering mindset, this is absurd. For these, humility is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is the humble man who has a good mastery of this life, for there is nothing to lose by being humble. The writer of the book of Proverbs says: “Humility and fear of the Lord brings wealth (symbol of blessing) and honour, and life” ( Prov. 22:4). Thus if we refuse to be humble in this life, then let us remember that sooner or later our pride will go down in death and dust.
2. PRIDE IS VENOMOUS TO THE SPIRIT:
Pride blocks the spirit of man from moving towards his creator. It tends to convince him that he can do without God. When this happens, the tendency of self-divinisation is born.
3. WITHOUT HUMILITY OUR LIFE IS EMPTY:
Do you know why? Yes, because if we are not humble, we will always work for ourselves with little or no regard for the other. And life without ‘the other’ is absolutely an empty and meaningless life.
4. HUMILITY BREEDS OTHER VIRTUES:
It will be impossible to seek for forgiveness for example if we are not humble. And to utter the word “sorry” will be a difficult task. When we say sorry, it is not weakness or cowardice but it shows that we are stronger than the other. Pride brings shame, and shame prevents us from going out of ourselves in order to enter into good relationship with the other.
5. PRAYER IS ONLY POSSIBLE BY HUMILITY:
Humility in the wisdom of the Church is the foundation of prayer (CCC 2559). It will be impossible to prostrate before God in prayer and to ask him for favours. For “man is a beggar before God” ( St. Augustine).
6. HUMILITY ACCOMODATES THE OTHER:
If in the ‘meal’ that God prepares, everyone is invited, the rich and the poor alike, why then do we create a social system that rewards the “haves” and disadvantage the “have-not?” The message of Jesus resounds anew today, calling us all to embrace humility in order to inaugurate a new world that encourages social inclusion.
7. REASON TO BE HUMBLE:
All I have are God-given gifts to me. And even my life, I just realised that God said, “please hold it for now, I will collect it from you later.” Why then should I boast? Why should I use these God-given gifts to elevate myself above others and allow my pride to suffocate them? I must simply admit the truth about myself: I don’t know everything; I don’t do everything in a right way and I am purely imperfect and a sinner.
God we have all failed you. Forgive us in moments we have not acknowledged our “littleness” in order to serve you and our brothers and sisters especially the most needy. Help us now and always to imitate the humility of your Son Jesus our elder brother, so as to merit his glory at the end of our life. Amen.