(Sir.3:17-20, 28-29; Heb.12:18-19, 22-24; Lk.14:1, 7-14)
In Medieval England, the Church used to collect leftover meat from the tables of the rich, and they gave it to the poor.
These leftovers were usually deer or beef innards, called numbles. These numbles were chopped or minced, and then wrapped in pastry and cooked. The result was numble pie, which later became umble pie. The rich ate the tasty venison, while the poor ate umble pie. [i] [ii]
The nature of this dish has changed over the years, and today we speak of eating humble pie, where we accept that we were wrong about something.
Humble pie is what Jesus serves up at the Pharisee’s banquet in today’s Gospel. He has been invited to this feast, and as it starts, he notices the guests scrambling for the best seats at the table, near the most important people.
Jesus is appalled, and tells them so. Don’t go grabbing a seat that’s not yours, he says. You risk embarrassment if the host asks you to move. It’s better to wait until you’re asked to sit, because then you might be offered a good spot.
And he adds, ‘Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’
In Biblical times, the Pharisees hated humble pie, because pride was everything to them. They worked hard to receive public honour and to avoid being shamed.
Today, things aren’t much different, because pride is still very popular. Lots of people simply love drawing attention to themselves. They like getting praise and recognition because it makes them feel good.
But they forget that pride claims that everything is perfect, when it can’t be. Humility, however, means seeing ourselves as we really are, and always being open to receive any further improvement or correction.
When we’re proud, we’re effectively saying that we don’t need to change, and we close ourselves off. But when we acknowledge our weaknesses, we open ourselves up to receive God’s abundant graces. As St Peter says, ‘God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble’ (1Pet.5:5-6).
All through the Bible, we see God showering his graces on people who were genuinely honest about themselves. Moses, for example, was ‘very humble, more than anyone else on earth’ (Num.12:3), and yet God still called him to lead his people to the Promised Land.
King Solomon was rich and powerful, but he didn’t let that go to his head. He knew that everything came from God (2Chron.6:13; 1Kgs.8:54).
When the Wise Men arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the first thing they did was to drop onto their knees to worship Jesus (Mt.2:11).
St Paul saw himself as the least of the apostles (1Cor.15:9) and the chief of sinners (1Tim.1:15), but he still became one of the greatest saints.
And St John the Baptist thought he wasn’t worthy to undo the strap of Jesus’ sandals (Jn.1:27). And yet Jesus said he was one of the greatest human beings ever to walk the face of the Earth (Mt.11:11).
All these people were happy to eat humble pie. They knew that ‘Where there’s humility, there’s wisdom’ (Prov.11:2).
So, what’s the recipe for humble pie?
The crust is made from dust and ashes, which is where we come from (and where we’re going to). The filling is a blend of equal parts of self-awareness, kindness, self-restraint and a desire to learn. And it’s all served with a fine sprinkling of love.
Humility is the first test of a truly great person, because it means understanding who you really are, including your own strengths and weaknesses. It means knowing where you fit into the scheme of things. It means respecting others and treating them as more important than you are.
St. Augustine once said, ‘If you ask me what’s most essential in the Christian faith, I’d say: first, humility; second, humility, and third, humility.’
Let’s close with a story from the great Polish Rabbi Simcha Bunim. He taught that everyone should have two pockets. In one pocket they should have a piece of paper saying: ‘I am only dust and ashes.’ When they’re feeling too proud, they should reach into this pocket, take out this paper and read it.
In the other pocket they should have another piece of paper saying: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ When they’re feeling lowly and disheartened, they should reach into this pocket, take out this paper and read it.
For we are each the joining of two worlds.
We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of
[iii] Martin Buber, Tales of The Hasidim Later Masters. Schoken Books, NY, 1948:249-50. https://www.templeisaiah.com/pdf/1481327848_sermon_pdf_2016_Rabbi_Joel_Nickerson_Yom_Kippur_Sermon_Two_Pockets_.pdf