Humility and Love
Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Andrew Brookes suggests that humility and love are both reasonable and necessary.
Today’s gospel contains two pieces of moral exhortation by Jesus. However, in the first case the argument of Jesus appears reasonable, and its potency is based on it the reasonableness of wanting to be esteemed; but the second seems very unreasonable: don’t look for hospitality to be returned. The first seems to promote self-interest while the second advocates deliberately setting self-interest aside. Is there a lack of coherence here, even a contradiction, that undermines the teaching of Jesus here and its intended impact?
In both cases, Jesus provides clues that he is addressing a reality beyond that of our social concerns on this earth. He ends the first by providing a universal statement. ‘All who exalt themselves with be humbled but that anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ These are guaranteed outcomes as Jesus puts it here, the sort of outcomes that God, and only God, brings about. It would be evident that this is not guaranteed within history as we currently experience it. Even in the wedding parable, social elevation is not a guaranteed outcome if a person follows the advice of Jesus, never mind for everyone.
And in the second case, Jesus explicitly refers to a reward being received when the virtuous rise again. So charity does attract a reward if not reciprocally from its immediate recipients. Taking a longer view of what is in our best interests underlines both exhortations. But it is a deeper view too of reality as God is always present and active. Put succinctly, the first exhortation promotes humility and the second charity, both as recognised and rewarded by God. Also, the first leads to the second. These virtues are closely connected, so it is not a coincidence they are brought together by Jesus.
Saint Catherine of Siena can provide us with some insights here. She says that humility is the ground in which the tree of charity, the mother of other virtues, is planted and from which it is nourished.
In the order of creation, humility consists in knowing that all we have, even our existence, is from God. Even our existence is a gift. We are all equal in this. That creation, and all we have and are, are gifts from God should root us in humility, not pride; in wonder, not self-conceit; in gratitude, not self-promotion. Humility opens us to love too. It recognises that each of us is made as a gift, called into being out of love by God who does not need us at all but chooses to create us and offer us love, to live in love with others.
This is even more dramatic in terms of salvation. Humility recognises we are flawed, both by personal sin and by contamination by the sin of the world. We need to be forgiven and healed. We cannot save ourselves. God loved us enough to save us. This is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us while we were still sinners and sent Jesus to take away our sins. God loves us this without imposing upon us that we love God in return. It is our choice.
Humility recognises this and humbly looks to God for mercy. Humility enables us to receive the salvation of God, to be forgiven and raised up, exalted, in dignity, but it also opens us up to the love of God and motivates us to love. Love is planted in our hearts but it needs to grow. Pride and other sins put us at the centre. Love of God and others overcomes this and helps us grow and so enter the blessings God has for us. The love of God begins to motivate us both to love God and others made by him and for whom Jesus died to give them salvation.
If we are willing, we are to love as God loves us. We cannot love God the way God loves us, since we know God is good, faithful, loyal and infinitely generous in his love. But we can love others in ways that are inspired and sustained by the way God loves us: being generous to others without demanding or requiring a return from them. God loves us that way, and when we love others that way, we express the love of God to them and for them. Such love is at the heart of evangelisation. It can consist in offering hospitality (as in the gospel today) or others ways of offering time, talents, ourselves and our faith. It might lead them to turn to consider God, to turn to God. and whether or not, it expresses the truest and deepest reality, that of God. As Jesus promised his host, for this God will reward us, for he who lives in such love, lives in God and will live richly forever, affirmed and exalted by God, with a good place at the heavenly banquet.
Image: detail from The Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese