In this Gospel passage Christ almost sounds more like a wise Aunt than like a prophet or a moral teacher. At a dinner party, he clearly advises the guests, “Don’t take the most honoured place at the table. Chances are someone more important than you will come along, and you will look awfully foolish when you are told to move down the table.” Then, almost craftily, he advises, “When you come in, take the lowest place at the table, then when the host invites you to move up, you will look really good.” Taken just on the surface, this all looks more like an exercise in social games playing than a call to honest humility.
Of course, the reading can’t be taken just on the surface. Christ consistently uses the image of a wedding feast, a banquet, as a symbol of heaven, salvation, the Kingdom of God.
The invitation to the feast is the call that Christ gives to each of us to be saved, to take up our share in the Kingdom of God. The point of the parable certainly is that no one, no matter how intelligent, attractive and virtuous, ever earns a place at that banquet. No one is ever saved by his or her own merit. A place in the Kingdom of God is a pure, undeserved gift. The point is clearly made that all the distinctions that we draw between people on the basis of ability, merit, even appearance, are meaningless, foolish, in the eyes of God.
So really, this reading is the key to an authentic Christian understanding of humility. We don’t practice a virtue by denying the truth. Christ was not telling his listeners to deny or stop developing their talents. But he was telling them not to become so caught up in relying on their own virtues that they lose sight of their ultimate dependence on God.
Far from obscuring the truth, the practice of humility should urge us to recognise and affirm the truth. Intelligence, talent, attractiveness, and virtues are wonderful things. If we have them, and we all do to one degree or another, and do not acknowledge them, we are not humble, we are liars. If we have them and don’t use them, as the last paragraph in the Gospel says, in the free open service of one another, then we are not only liars, we are lazy and wasteful liars.
Humility demands of us then that we recognise what we truly are, God’s creatures, utterly dependent on him for our happiness. Humility demands that we accept his direction and example when we set out to put our talents to use, exercise our abilities, as we must do.
Humility demands that we accept and rely on God’s judgement rather than on our own as to who and what is valuable and important in our lives, even if that judgement seems to be in contradiction to our own.