Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Sir Thomas Becket (1964)

First reading                                     Ecclesiasticus 3:19-21,30-31   Responsorial Psalm                        Psalm 67(68):4-7,10-11
Second Reading                               Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24
Gospel                                                  Luke 14:1,7-14


“Am I the strongest or am I not?” asks King Henry II in the 1964 film Becket. “You are today, but one must never drive one’s enemy to despair; it makes him strong. Gentleness is better politics, it saps virility. A good occupational force must never crush, it must corrupt.” – Responds the shrewd Lord Chancellor. Becket’s almost poetic insight in the film is of course a profoundly biblical one, for the sage of Ecclesiasticus urges us, “my son, be gentle in carrying out your business, and you will be better loved than a lavish giver. The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord; for great though the power of the Lord is, he accepts the homage of the humble” (Sir 3:17-20). In the Gospel this weekend our Lord himself warns, as he is wont to do, that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).

The readings of this Sunday’s Liturgy seem to single out gentleness and humility as virtues for our consideration and cultivation. Indeed these two virtues are intimately coupled together in the very person of Jesus, who famously declared himself to be “gentle and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29). These are therefore virtues which every Christian must strive to imitate in their daily conversion to conformity with Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to be gentle and humble?

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”, says our Lord in the third Beatitude (Matt 5:5). In translations of the New Testament, this curious word “meek” is used interchangeably with the word “gentle”, both of which translate the Greek term praus (πραΰς). Praus is a notoriously elusive word to translate as it is much more nuanced than the usual mild, gentle, or meek, which can give the impression of weakness or softness. Praus is rather used in Greek literature to describe a good warhorse or ship, whose great strength has been tamed. A good ship or warhorse needs to be powerful, yet brute strength alone can be a liability. Such strength must be coupled with obedient responsiveness and manoeuvrability, such that that the rider or captain can control the horse or ship and put its strength to effective use. There’s something incredibly noble and majestic about a horse, for example, that is full of sheer strength and yet whose instinct is totally mastered by docility and responsiveness to its rider. In the same way are we in awe of people whose lives bear the spiritual fruit of self-control, in whom we see the storms of human passion and emotion brought into obedience to right reason and virtue. In such cases, rather than meekness resembling some kind of weakness, their meekness is in fact a far greater strength than the very power it subdues. Is it any wonder that the meek shall inherit the earth, that is, those who are strong and wise enough to control their brute selves? Such people, like Becket, rather than unleashing their strength to strike, conquer the world through a disarming gentleness that begins with a certain disarmament of self.

Jesus of course exemplifies this meekness par excellence, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). There simply could not be anyone more meek than the one who totally subjected his infinite divine power to the obedience of the Cross as one in the form of a slave. Such meekness, as in the example of Jesus’ self-emptying, comes about through humility. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death…”

The Greek term for humble is tapeinos (ταπεινός), which literally means “low” or “low-lying” i.e., on the ground. The English word “humility” is derived ultimately from the Latin word humus meaning dirt, soil or earth. Again, there’s this connection with the ground. Yes, it carries the connotation of taking a lower place as in this weekend’s Gospel (Lk 14:10), but more accurately humility is to take one’s rightful place. You see, to be humble is not to occupy a place lower than oneself. There is a type of unbearable false humility we see when someone extravagantly puts themselves down to characterise themselves as a humble person. Rather, if we have our feet planted firmly on the ground, that is, standing in the truth of who we are, we cannot help but remember that we are earth creatures moulded from the clay (Gen 2:7) and that we are dust and unto dust we shall return (Gen 3:19).

Humility in the proper sense is for the human being to know its place and to occupy it before the majesty of God so that God can raise it up beyond itself to what it is not. This is why God “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly” (Lk 1:52), not because he doesn’t like the mighty, but precisely because he wishes to raise them up to true glory. Pride blocks the divinising grace of God who wishes to bestow himself on us! One must stand in the full truth of who they are in order to open oneself up to the heights God wishes to raise them. Again, we see this in Jesus who though he was God, he humbled himself in all meekness to the dust of human nature and was thence raised up: “therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).

To conclude, it seems that Jesus’ teaching in this weekend’s Gospel about taking the lowest seats at a wedding feast is not really about back row seats. His words direct us to his life and example which embody the kind of meekness and humility that we must imitate if we are to be raised up to the highest seats, i.e., in heaven, and so conquer the world by a “better politics”. In a world torn by violence, strife, polarisation and division, these qualities of our Lord are most sorely needed!


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