I learned in my grade school religion classes that to be humble simply means to be honest.

God never expects us to deny the gifts or talents we have. We're just not to think more of ourselves than we should.

That concept coincides not only with the first lines of the first reading this Sunday (Sirach 3:17-18,20,28-29), but also with the two other scriptural passages.

Greatness

"My child," Sirach writes, "conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God."

The author insightfully reminds his readers that "greatness" can be a cause of "blindness." The glare of our own personal gifts can obscure the gifts of others.

Jesus makes that very same point in the Gospel (Luke 14:1,7-14). He first cautions His fellow dinner guests not to value themselves more than others value them. Those who make that mistake might end up being publicly embarrassed.

Then He zeroes in on one of His most demanding teachings, one we conveniently forget: "When you hold a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers, sisters or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors....Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Embedded in this command is one of Jesus' fundamental beliefs: We're all in this together. One of the things that most bugged Jesus' enemies was His insistence that there are no "ins" or outs." For Him, everyone is "in."

The limits that separate one from others are almost always human inventions, not divine creations. Remember how harshly He condemned the priest and Levite in His Good Samaritan parable for refusing to help the Jew left to die alongside the road?

According to the pair's religious restrictions, their "in" position in the clerical hierarchy required them to bypass the man, who, because of his bloody condition, was "out." Ironically, it was another "out" person who came to his aid.

Scholars remind us that even Jesus' habit of traveling with "the Twelve" was meant to be an inclusive sign to His Jewish audiences, demonstrating that all Jews were included in God's kingdom -- every member of the 12 tribes, not just those from a small handful of "pre-eminent" tribes. (That explains why the Twelve were all men; the original 12 were Jacob's sons. Its Jewish symbolism is also why John rarely refers to the group in his Gospel. By the time he wrote, almost no Jews were converting to Jesus' faith.)

Common sharers

When Jesus tells His followers to invite society's outcasts to be one with them in sharing a meal, He is reminding them that their prerogatives should never stop them from being one with those who don't share those same privileges.

After all, as the author of the second reading (Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24a) contends, those who follow Jesus all share in the same privileges of faith, no matter their individual gifts, or lack of gifts: "You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God,...the assembly of the first-born in heaven, and God the judge of all...and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant."

In the author's theology, Yahweh's powerful Sinai appearance turned some Jews off: "They begged that no message be further addressed to them." But that's not the case with the presence of the risen Jesus, neither at the end of the world nor in the day-by-day lives of His disciples. All share equally in this wonderful experience.

Those who think they're "in" and others are "out" should probably reflect on their personal humility.

(8/30/07)