When I was in Taiwan living at the Holy See nunciature (Vatican embassy), Msgr. Russell surprised me when he said that priests in the Vatican Diplomatic Service are aware of who gets made a nuncio first (a nuncio is the Pope’s ambassador in a country) and to what country he gets sent. The thinking is that if one priest becomes archbishop before he’s 50 years old, that’s an honour, and if he gets assigned, let’s say, to a first world country like England, he’s considered among the best. I said, “Really? They’re concerned about that kind of stuff?” He said, “Oh, don’t tell me that doesn’t happen back home. Priests are aware of who gets a bigger parish, a flourishing or a dying one.” I realized he was right: We are aware of who appears more successful, well-regarded, and holy.
All people size each other up pretty quickly. One time downstairs in the parish hall during a large gathering, a visitor said to me, “Who’s that?” pointing at one of you! I said his name, and the visitor said that he was a leader, a mover, someone who commanded respect—he was right.
We typically compare ourselves with other people who are at a similar stage of life: We compare how our kids behave to others’ kids, we’re aware of who has a better car, a new, bigger house, who’s been more successful, who’s stronger. Women are aware of who’s more beautiful, who looks younger. This starts early. Once, on retreat, I overheard some Gr. 7 girls complimenting each other on their beauty. One said, “Oh, you’re so pretty.” I thought: “When I was in Gr. 7, we never talked like that. I knew my brothers were uglier than I and that was that.” But, it’s true I was still aware of who got more attention and who was more popular.
We may think the first parable of the Gospel about where to sit at a wedding banquet doesn’t apply to us because it’s rooted in an honour-based society. But it does. We don’t use words like honour and shame, but we’re still aware of who’s better, more talented, and more liked. It says, “When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place’” (Lk 14:7-9).
Jesus isn’t saying there is no place of honour at a banquet, there is! Some people are more distinguished than others. Our culture likes to say that everyone’s equal. That’s only partially true. It’s similar to kids’ playing a game where everyone receives a ‘participation’ award, and teachers proclaim, “There are no winners or losers. Everyone’s a winner”—what? It’s true we’re all equal in dignity, but not in ability, virtue, or accomplishment.
Since we often don’t see the whole person, even ourselves, and can’t judge 100% accurately, Jesus says, “Do not sit down at the place of honour.” Be humble, some people might be better than we, be gracious in losing, acknowledge that some people might be more talented and might have worked harder than we, and let someone else be the judge. Real honour isn’t something we give ourselves, it’s given by others (Daniel Mueggenborg, Come Follow Me, Year C, 207). And don’t seek it. Honour is like gratitude: Gratitude is important and we should say “Thank you,” but we shouldn’t seek it. If we do, then we start to base our self-worth on these gifts.
Jesus continues, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:10-11).
1) “Go and sit down at the lowest place.” One of the tests of this humility is that we’re not surprised when we’re humiliated/criticized. If we fail at something we set out to do, or are corrected, or are made fun of in a minor way, and are surprised by this, it’s because we’re not yet that humble. Look at the following saying: “He who honestly puts himself in the last place is not astonished when others put him there, too” (Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbée, I Believe in Love, 124). Think about this: Jesus just told us to sit at the lowest place. If we really believe that we’re last, why does it shock us when people treat us as if we’re last?
Now, we don’t let ourselves be abused or teach our kids to allow others to take advantage of them. We’re talking, rather, about letting our unhealthy pride die. We should stand up for ourselves, but not because it hurts our ego or because we’re soft, but because it’s the right thing to do—there’s a difference. Standing up for ourselves comes not from hurt feelings, but from a desire for truth and justice.
For example, if people make fun of me, I won’t stay up thinking about it or let it hurt my self-esteem, because maybe I am last and my esteem comes not from others, but from God. I will also defend myself and work to stop the evil, but not lose my peace.
2) When Jesus says, “When your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher,’” this means we can’t reject the elevation. Some of us have been taught that humility means to deny compliments; ask Deacon Andrew about how Chinese deflect compliments—it’s really amusing. A better, more Christian response when people compliment us is to say, “Thank you. It’s a gift. Praise God.”
Here’s the thing: If I compliment you, it’s an act of love, and if you push away that compliment that I’m making sincerely, you’re pushing away my act of love. But if we say those three phrases, “Thank you. It’s a gift. Praise God,” then we’re receiving love and directing the gift to the true giver, God.
3) Back to this teaching of “Go and sit down at the lowest place.” Do this, but don’t take the lowest place in order to be complimented. When we secretly hope someone will notice us, we’re still clinging more to human acceptance than to God’s. Fr. Francis Martin says, “We do not take the lowest place hoping to get a promotion: the last place is the promotion because we share it with Jesus who said of himself: ‘For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45)” (in Praying with St. Luke’s Gospel, ed. Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP, 227).
Wow! Jesus took the last place! Think about it this way: We’re at a big wedding reception with 400 people in downtown Vancouver, with the head table elevated on a stage, and all of us are assigned seats depending on how close we are to the bride and groom. The closest people are near the stage while the rest of us are at the edges of the room, and we eat last. We smile on the outside but, on the inside, we’re starting to get angry because we’re starving and people at the buffet are taking forever and taking all the best food! And then we see Jesus at table #40. He’s not eating. He’s serving the last table. He’ll eat later.
Do you remember when He said at the Last Supper, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them… But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:25-27)? To take the last place is to serve, and to serve is to reign (Cf. Lumen Gentium, 36).
Jesus, even though He was God, humbled Himself and took the form of a slave, and became obedient unto death, death on a cross. Because of this, God the Father exalted Him, and gave Him the name above every name, so that at Jesus’ name, every knee must bend, in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth—that’s from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-10).
With this in mind, I want to let you all know that our season of the Sabbath Summer is now over. I hope it was a beautiful time of resting in God and celebrating Him. Of course, no season is ever completely over: Since last year, we’ve had these four seasons: Invitational Church (hospitality) (Sept-Dec), Eucharistic Heart (adoration) (Jan-Apr), Break the Silence (devout conversations) (May-June), Sabbath Summer (rest) (July-August). Once a season is done, we continue to live it, so keep on respecting the Sabbath every Sunday!
Now we’re starting a new season called Made for Mission (Sept-Nov) (service). Jesus came to serve; we’ve been given so much by Him and now we’re called to do the same. His mission was to give His life as a ransom for many, meaning to bring humanity back to God the Father—can you think of any more important mission? This is the most important mission in the world, and we’re called to share in it. This is going to help us achieve the third part of our vision, to love like Jesus.
However, we’re all made for mission in a different way. One time, P. Augustine, a monk at Westminster Abbey, grabbed me by the upper arm, and said with a smile, “Justin.” “Yes, Father.” “Do you know St. Benedict says, ‘Every man has his proper gift’ (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 40)?” “No, Father.” “Well, you should.” Each of us has special gifts and talents meant to bring others closer to God. Some gifts are greater than others, but we need all of them, and God gave each of them for a purpose.
So, for the next three months, we’re going to discuss mission, service, and different gifts. Here’s a working list of different spiritual gifts: Encouragement, Helps, Hospitality, Mercy, Pastoring, Evangelism, Prophecy, Teaching, Administration, Leadership, Giving, Service, Celibacy, Extraordinary Faith, Missionary, Voluntary Poverty, Healing, Intercessory Prayer, Knowledge, Wisdom, Craftsmanship, Music, Writing (Sherry Weddell, Fruitful Discipleship, 78-79). When we find the way we’re meant to serve, even though it’s sacrificial, it becomes incredibly fruitful and joyful!
My dream is that all of us can discover our gifts. We want to help unlock this. Deacon Andrew, for instance, is meant to be a deacon. He has the gift of service. He doesn’t have the technical spiritual gift of leadership—he knows it, and he thrives! Anna Lam told me that she loves leading Faith Studies and will do it whenever it’s convenient for other people! Ron Siy thrives in hospitality: He’s a big teddy bear that channels God’s warm welcoming. Jackie Chau loves and is talented at helping people discover their gifts and she’s helping organize our parish to do this. It’s so exciting when I saw Alan Bolivar do all of our A/V work—he’s so good at video editing that it was flawless. I told him that his gift helped 1068 people almost every week. And I noticed recently that God always seems to answer Vicky Chang’s prayers, so much so that I seriously told her to tell me for what she’s praying so that I can cooperate and do God’s will.
Our goal this season is that we can all serve spiritually in some way and discover where God has gifted us.
I’ll end with what might seem like a funny story, but points to the fact that all of our gifts are meant for service. Around 1960, the famous Archbishop Sheen was flying to Chicago and a very beautiful stewardess sat down next to him. “She said, ‘Do you remember meeting me?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t. I should, but I don’t…’ She said, ‘Two years ago on this plane I met you; I sat with you for twenty minutes, and I remember every word you said.’ ‘What did I say?’ ‘You began by saying, “You are a very beautiful girl. And do you know that of all the gifts that God gives, the one he gets back last… is the gift of beauty. He gives money; people use it for the poor; he gives song, and people use it for worship; when he gives beauty, he sometimes gets back nothing… So why don’t you think of giving your beauty to people who have never seen anything beautiful.” That’s what you said.’ He said, ‘That sounds just exactly like me…’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ve had two years to think it over; I’ve made up my mind. I’m willing to do anything.’ ‘When?’ ‘Now.’ He said, ‘All right, you come to my office in New York, and I will tell you where you are going. I will tell you now if you want to know.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference…’ He said, ‘You are going to Vietnam. You are going to a leper colony.’ There she is today with a woman doctor, and they drive a jeep… particularly under bridges where lepers hide… and she picks them up and takes them to a leper colony and cares for them. And thus the lepers are seeing something beautiful for the first time in their lives. And she, on account of love of mankind… is also seeing something very beautiful.”
So, I want all the men this week to find beautiful women, and say, “You are a very beautiful woman. You are called to serve. I’m just doing what Archbishop Sheen did.” Just kidding.
If we follow Jesus’ teaching today of humility, we’ll stop making useless comparisons. We’ll be free, free to be like Him, to take the last place and serve, and find joy in that! Everyone has their gifts, and gifts are made for service.