9/1/2013, Be What You Are -- Humus

Sirach 3:17-18,20,28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24; Luke 14:1,7-14

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus has been invited to be a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee. Noticing that the seating trend was for other guests to choose the places of honor in the seating arrangements, he launched into another one of his mysterious parables. We are invited to imagine a wedding feast in which an ordinary person places himself at the head table, perhaps the table reserved for the groom and his wife.  Wouldn’t you be embarrassed, says Jesus, if just as the feast is to begin, the groom comes up to you and says you don’t belong there, the seat is designated for a more important person? Jesus observes that anyone who tries elevate himself above others will ultimately be humbled. The better idea would be to take the lower place and find yourself invited by the host to move up to a better table. Then others at the feast know that your presence is valued.

Perhaps when Jesus told this parable he was thinking of our reading from Sirach, which is one of the Old Testament books of wisdom literature. “My children, be gentle in all that you do, and you will be loved by the blessed. The bigger you become the more you should humble yourself, and you will find favor with God.”  Or maybe be was thinking of Proverbs 25:6-7, Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,  and do not claim a place among his great men;  it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”   than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.”

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, being humble is an essential characteristic of the person who is right with God.  The teaching and example of Jesus broadened the Christian understanding of humans in relation to God, to self, and to other people. Jesus taught that a humble person knows who he honestly is.  She recognizes her gifts and the calling of God on her life.  A truly humble person knows that all s/he has to give is simply an expression of God in human form.  Humility courageously asserts one’s gifts and calling when the time is right.


The words humble and humility as well as the word human come from the Latin word humus.    Basically, humus is dirt. It is the earth that comes from the decomposition of plant or animal matter. Genesis metaphorically describes God bringing humans into existence by shaping man from the clay. We come from the earth and in death, to the earth we return. To be humble is to recognize one’s essence as that which is really nothing in itself, but which contains the resources that produce life.  The life coming from earth eventually returns to the earth to produce more life.

This is a great mystery of nature’s cycle, which offers us another parable about humility. 

 I have been intrigued by simply watching the work of earthworms who occupy a quiet corner of my kitchen. I put our fruit and vegetable garbage into their bin and let them reduce it to compost. Here’s a jar scooped from that bin.  You can see the worms and even a slug or two hard at work.  Here’s a jar of  the finished product.  Lovely it’s not, but nutritious it is.  When I work it into the garden next spring, it will find purpose in revitalizing the earth. How can it be that the lowly form of life called the earthworm participates in this process of bringing new life from that which we call garbage? 

This week Karen Jansen and I were bemoaning the presence of slugs in our gardens.  What’s the point of slugs, we wondered?  An internet site on garden science says this: “Organisms exist because they are able to. It's the property of life to expand and diversify to fill all available ecological niches. Slugs do damage to garden plants and crops, but they also help to clear away rotting vegetation which is important for recycling nutrients, such as nitrogen, through the food chain.  They are themselves a valuable source of food for toads, slow-worms, beetles and birds.”  So… I guess we need to find a place in our hearts to value the humble slug!

Contrasted with these lowly examples from nature, in which every part of creation has it’s place in the grand cycle of life, what do you think Jesus was trying to teach with his parable of the wedding feast?  I think he was saying that we must realize that no one human is more important than another in the kin-dom of God.  We each have our purpose to fulfill as God’s creation continues to bring life from life. Even death has meaning in this cycle.  If we simply be who we are and do what we are called to do when we are called to do it, without envy for the position of another or undue pride in ourselves, we manifest the quality of humility that Jesus demonstrated. 

As the supreme example of humility, Jesus washed His disciples' feet just before he went to a humiliating death on the cross.  He gave himself back to the earth in death, to rise again and become the source of new life for all humanity. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks of our need to be like the self-emptying of Christ, who gave up his divine form to become a servant of humanity.   But in Colossians, Paul also warns against a false humility. It is not genuine humility when we refuse to become the greatness of who we have capacity to be. It is true humility when we do not think of self at all.  We live from humility when we don’t choose our actions to be falsely humble or to be seen as great in others ‘eyes.  We simply do what we must do to be who we have been called to be in God’s economy.

The worm or the slug is no less important to the cycle of life than is the beautiful fruit that grows from the earth to nourish us.  The fruit itself eventually returns to the ground as compost or fecal matter.  We humans are the animal life that has been nourished to serve the world, but we also decompose in death.  These thoughts should be enough to keep all of us pretty humble, and yet, they should also compel us to live fully whatever form of life we have been given. Be what you are while you can and you will be living the essence of humility.  

By Sandi DeMaster