SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  ECCL 3:19-21, 30-31; HEB 12:18-19, 22-24; LK 14:1, 7-14]

What is heaven like?  It is important that we have some inkling as to what heaven is like if we are serious about going there.  Without knowledge of what is in store for us in heaven, we would not strive to reach there.  So what is heaven like and for whom?  Heaven is really to be with God and with the communion of saints who have been made perfect in Christ Jesus.  It is to have the heart of God.

Today, the liturgy gives us the fundamental criteria for living the life of God.  It can be summed up as humility and charity.  Indeed, St Francis de Sales said that humility and charity are both the lowest and the highest virtues necessary to build the edifice of our spiritual life.  Humility is the foundation and charity is the roof of the spiritual edifice.   Why is this so?

Humility is the gate to all other virtues in life.  Without humility, we cannot grow in true self-knowledge, honesty, realism and strength in the face of trials, adversity and in good times.  Humility enables us to see and judge ourselves correctly according to the judgment of God.  Thus, in the first reading, the author advises us to be humble: “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.”   

Humility enables us to recognize our place in the world as given by God. Indeed, we cannot choose our position in life, whether we are intelligent or dull; whether we are born with a silver spoon in our mouth or to a poor family; whether we die young or old.  As the first parable in today’s gospel suggests, God allots us our seats according to what is best for us in His divine wisdom and providence.  Everything is given to us by the grace of God.  So a humble man is grateful for whatever he receives because they are free gifts.

However, we must be careful not to deceive ourselves in humility.  It would be a gross misinterpretation of today’s parable if we think that Jesus is suggesting that we should pretend to be nobody by sitting at the lowest place in order that the host would come and move us up higher and thus “everyone with you at the table will see you honoured.”  Such ulterior motive is pride disguised as humility.  If Jesus suggests that we sit in the lowest place, it is because we do not know ourselves.  Thus, we need others to place us.  Indeed, many of us are so blind that we cannot see our true self and thus we live either in low self-esteem or a superiority complex.

Humility is none of these.  Humility is not to think of ourselves less, but to think less of ourselves.  In other words, humility must not be confused with a poor self-image.  Pride as a capital sin must not be confused with a healthy self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our work or having some pride in ourselves. For pride in this respect is to be understood as self-respect and respect for the integrity of one’s work.  On the contrary, it would be false modesty to belittle ourselves or to deny our talents and gifts.  This would be a denial and insult to the glory and graciousness of God.

Simply put, humility means accepting who we are, no more, no less. Humility is therefore a true understanding of who we are.  A humble person makes a realistic assessment of himself without illusion or pretense to be what he is not.  True humility frees us to be ourselves by freeing us from despair and pride.  Such a person does not have to wear a mask or put on a facade in order to look good to others.  He is not easily influenced by accidentals, such as fame, reputation, success or failure.  As Blessed Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble, nothing will ever touch you, neither praise nor disgrace because you know what you are.”

True humility acknowledges the gifts we have but does not boast about them since they have been received as free gifts from the Lord.  So, if there is anything to boast about, it is to boast of the goodness and generosity of the Lord.

Hence true humility, which evokes gratitude, always leads us to the exercise of charity.  When we are humble and grateful that all we have comes from God, such a realization would give us the same empathy for others.  We would see that our goods and talents are meant to be shared, since all of us are undeserving of God’s gifts.  We know that what we are today is due to God’s grace.  Realizing our own poverty will enable us to put others before ourselves, their needs before our own.  Instead of competing with others, we will help them to attain what we have.  Instead of being proud and arrogant, we listen to them for they too have something to offer us.  Consequently, if we have the heart of God in us, we too want to be gracious and give to all those who cannot repay us in any way.  Such unconditional love is true charity.  Thus, charity and humility always go together.

Indeed, just like false humility, we must not misunderstand the gospel as encouraging us to practise false charity.  When Jesus said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbours, for fear they repay your courtesy by inviting you in return”, what kind of fear is He implying?  Certainly, it is not the fear of being repaid in such a way that we feel small.  Indeed, there are some people who like to give but they do not like to receive.  For in giving, they feel that they are superior, whereas in receiving, they are like beggars.  Of course, the other fear of being invited back is when there is a competition to be better than the other.  There are some people who like to outdo each other so that they are one “up” on the other.  Such a competitive spirit springs from pride and egotism.

Rather, the fear that Jesus speaks about is “holy fear.”  In other words, it is the fear that our love for others would be reduced to a pagan love.  What is a pagan love if not simply an exchange of love and gifts?   To love those who love us is not really love because we still primarily love ourselves.  The only difference is that instead of loving ourselves directly, we love others so that we can receive love in return.  But the love of God is an unconditional love.  It has no motive other than for the good of the other person.  So to love like God, we must love without motivation and without vested interest.  Such love is truly an emptying of oneself and therefore a charity in humility.

But is there anything wrong with hoping to receive an eternal reward, if not an earthly reward?  Are we not still being self-centered? Jesus seems to encourage that, for He said, “when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.”

Firstly, we must understand the words of Jesus in context.  The reward that Jesus is speaking about is not some kind of merits earned because of our hard work and sacrifices.  We must realize that even if we can do good works, it is because of the grace of God.  Without the love of the Holy Spirit in us, we cannot do any good in a selfless manner.  Pure love and selfless service come from God alone and His grace.

Secondly, when we speak of the eternal reward, we are speaking of a share in the life, joy and happiness of God.  When we share with others and exercise charity humbly, we share in the heart of God.  In the process of giving, we receive. So the reward that Jesus is speaking about is not something at the end of time.  Rather it is given the moment we die to ourselves and rise to a new life in Christ.

If we want to grow in humility and true love, we must learn from Jesus. As St Paul wrote to the Philippians, Jesus “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).

Indeed, among the saints, we can learn best perhaps from St Ignatius of Loyola who always reminded his followers that we must always put God above all things so that we can find Him in all things.  In everything we do, we must seek for the greater glory of God.  As such, we are called to choose poverty rather than riches; humiliation rather than glory; failure rather than success. Only when we deliberately choose the lowest seat, then we can be free interiorly for God’s service, accepting happily whatever lot He chooses for us.  For such a man, he is always contented, never asking for more and happy with what he has.