Luke 14:7-14, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
For today, just a few stories of humility.
I remember today the late Jesuit Bishop whose name was Cisco Claver. He was one of the most respected Filipino Bishops of our time for many reasons. To name a few, he didn’t fear to speak up for victims of human rights abuses, and to speak out against the countless terrors of the Marcos regime through his homilies and writitngs. He was instrumental in grassroot movements like that which organized communities against a multi-million dollar dam project which would have devastated ecology and livelihood of thousands of his fellow indigenous people in the Northern Philippines. And he co-wrote the pastoral letter of the Council of Bishops after the fraudulent 1986 snap elections. That letter, historians say, would eventually rally people toward the bloodless people power revolution of that year, the tipping point in the movement against that corrupt and terribly abusive regime.
Hearing his accomplishments, one might be led to imagine Bishop Claver a person of great physical stature. But in truth, he was a very small man, only about 5 feet tall, and really very ordinary looking. And so when he died in 2010, we heard stories of great service to the Church and the country, but also many comical anecdotes of people mistaking him to be the gardener, the house boy, or the driver of the convent, oftentimes to his amusement.
The most embarrassing of the stories I remember is of a religious sister who hitched a ride back to their mission area in the Bishop’s vehicle that was on its way there for some official business. She had never met the Bishop, and thought she would in that ride, but was disappointed when she saw it would only be her and the driver making this trip. After a long, uneventful drive, they got to their convent and was later met by the mother superior. “So where is the Bishop?” mother superior asked, and the sister answered “Oh, he didn’t come along. It was only me and the driver, and I just led the driver to the servants’ quarters where he could have his lunch.” In shock and horror, the mother superior informed the nun: “The Bishop doesn’t have a driver! I think you just led His Eminence to have lunch with our gardener!”
And so with great embarrassment, the sisters rushed to the servants quarters and found dear Bishop Claver, enjoying his lunch with the gardener and the real driver of the convent.
Story #2 is from the Pope’s visit to the Philippines last year.
After a mass at the Manila Cathedral which gathered representatives of all the religious in the country, there was a lunch hosted for the all the Bishops at the mass, to which of course the Holy Father was invited. Instead of having lunch there however, the Pope decided to silently slip away after the mass, in order to visit a nearby center for street children. “He wasn’t really hungry anyway’ he said,’and he will always have a chance to see those Bishops in Rome.” And so instead having a sumptuous lunch with dignitaries of the Church, there he had simple snacks with 200 or so former street children (who probably didn’t even understand how great a man was before them) but who joyfully welcomed him and made him very, very happy, nonetheless.
You probably also know that he did something similar in the US, declining an invitation to have lunch with government dignitaries, and choosing to join a soup kitchen initiative for the homeless. There he himself spent a couple of hours to serve and eat porridge with the men and women of the streets.
Story # 3 is of our own dear Bishop Kike Figaredo and his house in Battambang.
His house is one of the most welcoming I have seen of a Bishop. Through wide open windows, visitors can easily see if he is at his office. And the door to his quarters in the second floor is left open all day. And believe it or not, there are no guards to block and stop and ask if you have an appointment.
Once when I used to live there a few years ago, I met a very old Cambodian man who was standing outside the Bishop’s house. He stood with his cane in one hand and a big loaf of bread in the other. He wasn’t a parishioner and probably not even a Catholic, but was patiently waiting for Kike. When I told him that Kike was out for the day, visiting the villages, the old man teared up and simply asked me to please give Kike this loaf of bread which is all he could offer in thanks, he said. He said Kike gave him clothes and medicine when he was in dire need sometime back, and that he was so grateful.
It was at that moment that I realized why Kike’s house is so open and welcoming that way, because that is how his heart is, especially for the poorest.
I share these simple stories of great but humble people tonight, so that we can better glimpse faces of humility, this humility which Jesus offers us in this mass today. From Bishop Kike, Pope Francis and Bishop Claver, just these three observations:
First, this thing called humility actually saves us, doesn’t it? In theological speak, we say that humility is redemptive. Humility saves us from the psychosis of that unquenchable need for prestige, to boost social status, and to glorify ourselves and our egos. I think we all know this dangerous need so well, and know also how empty and desolate our interiorities become when we play that game. “Why do you do this to yourselves?” Jesus asks us today. “Don’t you see you can enjoy the party more – the food, the company, and the celebration – when no one is watching you, and when you can stop with the pretenses and just be yourself.”
Secondly, Jesus gifts us with a humility that lets us see and be with people whom we otherwise would not see. We know that those preoccupied by being rich and famous hardly have time to befriend and dine with the drivers, and gardeners, and street children of society. But the humble do, and are gifted by God’s presence among them, and are blessed by hearing God’s invitations to love and serve them.
Lastly, Jesus gifts us with a humility that can be scandalous to those who would rather choose the ways of the world. Just as Jesus’ own mingling with sinners was the talk of his town, so the suggestion for a host to throw a party for all the outcasts of society was simply unthinkable for any decent Jewish person of stature then, and maybe even for any of us today. In the same way, the humility of Pope Francis, Bishop Kike and Bishop Claver are an embarrassment for those of us who are much lower in stature than they, but who cannot be as humble. Such is Jesus’ way of scandalous loving, and scandalous mercy and scandalous humility, isn’t it? By his scandalous example, we are jolted from our complacency and shown the way towards change. By his life and example, he makes us see: there can be another way that is kinder, another world that is more just, another kind of life that is more joyful for us all.
And so we pray today, to be able to receive this humility – this humility that frees, that opens us to grace, and that changes the world. We pray to receive this humility, by the power of He who humbled himself by becoming man, by giving us his life and death, and by giving His very self as bread and wine for us all. Amen.