A Lesson in Humility on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

SCRIPTURES & ART: Humility is a difficult virtue because it requires the disposition to start with the other rather than the self.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee,” ca. 1618-1620
Peter Paul Rubens, “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee,” ca. 1618-1620 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Augustine wrote that there were two kinds of love in the world: amor sui ad contemptum Dei et amor Dei ad contemptum sui —  “love of self to the contempt of God and love of God to the contempt of self.”

You’ve got to choose one.

Because of sin, we are inclined toward the former. The human idea of “love” is automatically deformed when it begins with “me.” There are even contemporary thinkers who’d like to convince you this narcissism is essential to learning “how to love.”

Jesus disagrees. 

“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Humility is a difficult virtue for many people because it requires that self-loss, that forgoing of narcissism, that disposition to start with the other rather than the self.

It’s true that humility is not self-deprecation, running oneself down. Granted, feelings of no self-worth are growing in our times, something growing suicide rates reflect. That said, however, the remedy is not going to the other extreme of self-inflation (a far more persistent human defect). It is in knowing the truth about oneself, neither embellished nor disfigured. 

But knowing the truth about oneself usually requires the insight of others, since nemo est judex in causa sua (nobody’s a judge in his own affairs). That’s the value of family and friends that tell you the truth about yourself … and still love you.

That’s apparent in today’s Gospel.

Jesus makes observations about a banquet he probably attended. The guests were arriving. Apparently first-century Israel was not into place cards, as the guests are jockeying for position. Nobody wanted to sit in the back corner near the Jewish kids’ table. (Okay, kids almost certainly did not get separated out from families in antiquity.)

Some guest may have picked a prime seat. He must not have had sufficient frequent banquet miles or paid the seat upgrade, so he was politely invited back to banquet economy, probably to the telling looks of rivals who were glad to see him “put in his place.” 

Jesus draws lessons, not just about banquet etiquette. In terms of etiquette, he counsels his listeners to humility, to temper their self-estimation. 

But then he turns to rewards, temporal and spiritual.

It’s not just about etiquette. Have I “repaid” my friend, contact, boss or relative by inviting him to a dinner like the one he invited me to? How much should I put in the envelope for John and Mary’s wedding, considering what their family gave us? Am I overdue to take X out for drinks? Whose turn is it to pick up the monthly brunch?

Love is not a balancing of ledgers, a match of income and outflow. Love is about the other person, regardless of their ability to repay you, because they are persons made in the image and likeness of God. To see that, however, requires us to get past the nose of our narcissism, i.e., to acquire the virtue of humility. Only then “will you be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

“Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God,” advises Sirach in today’s First Reading. Why? Because as St. Paul elsewhere reminds us, it is the way of Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself …” (Philippians 2:6-11). Read that passage to learn about how Jesus progressively humbled himself and “because of this, God highly exalted him.”

Every sin is, at its core, love of self to the contempt of God. Every sin, therefore, lacks humility because, confronted with love of self versus love of God, the sinner chooses the former. 

Today’s Gospel’s themes are illustrated by two works. One (seen above) is by the great 17th-century Flemish Baroque master, Peter Paul Rubens (possibly with the collaboration of Anthony van Dyck), “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee.”

The event actually relates to an earlier event in Luke’s Gospel, 7:36-50. The Pharisee Simon invites Jesus to a dinner. Presumably other Pharisees are gathered round, because one would not expect a good Pharisee to mingle with public sinners. Luke mentions a number of hospitality omissions that would have been taken in Jesus’ day as snubs: no kiss of peace as greeting (remember that Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out last month two by two to greet the owner of the house where they were staying with “peace be with you”?); no water for ritual washing (even though the Pharisees would later complain that Jesus’ disciples failed in that practice — Mark 7:1-4); no anointing of his head with oil (to follow).

Hospitality did not exempt one from the provision of these gestures — it required them. Simon, therefore, dishonored his guest, though we do not necessarily know his intention. As usual, though, it seems the Pharisees are looking for some way to trip him up.

A woman who was a “public sinner” in that town enters and begins to wash Jesus’s feet, not with water but perfume and tears, wiping them not with a towel but her hair. Apparently, she regrets her life and sees in Jesus a chance for change. In the end, he declares her sins are forgiven.

What’s in between matters. Simon and his friends are scandalized, convinced Jesus can hardly be a prophet if he is unaware of this woman’s sinfulness. It is only then that Jesus raises the question of Simon’s hospitality gaffes. If they insist on running down this woman, whose gestures bespeak a desire for forgiveness, then Jesus measures out the forgiveness of their trespasses in the same measure as they did. It is only then that he reminds Simon that he did not greet him, give him water to wash with, or anoint him. Implicit are two questions: Who is he to deprecate this woman? And why does he think his sins — of which he has shown no gesture of repentance but rather the opposite — are less scarlet?

Jesus’s Pharisee hosts are either outraged or unconvinced of what Jesus is telling them. Meanwhile, the poor servant are bustling in the background, making sure everybody’s fed. And the woman, who cradles Jesus’ foot, is the only face apart from Christ’s that seems to radiate any peace.

The painting is at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Our second painting (below) comes from the 14th century, i.e., the end of the Middle Ages by Lorenzo Veneziano. It depicts a common medieval theme: Our Lady of Humility. It depicts it in a common medieval manner, almost like an icon: Our Lady and the Christ Child in the center, St. Mark on the left, St. John the Baptist on the right. I take it to be John the Baptist because of his scroll (“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”), which also cites John 1:29 and could, therefore, be the Evangelist. John the Baptist is a more apt symbol of humility, always pointing away from himself to Christ. St. Mark was patron of Venice.

The gold background is typical of late Gothic art, which focuses more on the heavenly realms than earthly scenes. One commentator notes that Veneziano was important because he moved Venice — which sits practically on the border between East and West — away from Byzantine toward Gothic styles.

One will not find a better example of humility than Mary, whose Canticle recognizes that her exaltation comes from God, not her own “lowliness.” And, as we have noted, because humility demands getting out of oneself and loving another, it is most appropriate that the Madonna of Humility is “blessed among women” with “the fruit of her womb, Jesus.”

The painting is in the National Gallery of Art, London. A similar work dating from roughly the same era by Caterino Veneziano is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Lorenzo Veneziano, “The Madonna of Humility with Sts. Mark and John,” ca. 1366-1370
Lorenzo Veneziano, “The Madonna of Humility with Sts. Mark and John,” ca. 1366-1370© The National Gallery, London