On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully [Luke 14:1].
Now what do you suppose they were watching for? Were they like modern journalists, on the lookout for something they could trap him in, what we would nowadays label a “gaffe”? In fact, they were so busy observing Jesus, they probably didn’t notice that he was watching them, that he was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. They must have been taken aback a bit when Jesus took the opportunity to give them a lesson in manners.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth [Act 3, Scene 4], when Macbeth welcomes the various lords, he assumes that they all know who ranks where, and so says to them: You know your own degrees; sit down. Jesus, however, chose instead to offer alternative advice, based on the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of the great; for its better that you be told, “Come up closer,” than that you be humbled before the prince. [Proverbs 25:6-7]
Now, believe it or not, I actually know someone who did as Jesus suggested (whether or not that was his actual intention) – and it worked!
It was 17 summers ago when I was in abroad. The mayor of a major American city was visiting, and the local mayor was holding a lunch in his honor, to which a certain American priest was invited. As he told the story, he wandered into the banquet room and just sat down at a table where there were several empty seats. No one seemed to notice or pay any particular attention to him, until suddenly someone came up to him and said: “Father, here you are. You’re supposed to be at the head table!” So he followed her up to the head table, all the while noticing how the very same people who had not noticed or paid any attention to him a few minutes before were now suddenly very interested in knowing who he was!
Knowing my friend, I suspect his modest behavior that day came quite naturally. That’s just who he is! Others may be more manipulative, exhibiting an externally humble pose, all the while expecting a contrary compliment from others. What we now fashionably call poor self-esteem might motivate some to minimize their accomplishments in the hope of being contradicted by someone who will give them the praise they think they deserve (but are afraid to claim for themselves). Of course, this can be a problem, if your poor self-esteem turns out to be accurate, if your humility is not contradicted, if, when you take the lowest place, no one says, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Most of us, I suspect, might be rather reluctant to risk confirming that we do in fact belong down there in the lowest place. So frightening is that prospect for most of us that, rather than risk it, we willingly spend much of our lives playing the dangerous game of competing constantly for the next higher position.
Jesus, however, was not primarily giving his audience a lesson in manners. The kingdom of God, Jesus never seems to tire of trying to teach us, is about the complete reversal of all our ordinary expectations. So this ordinary lesson in manners served for Jesus as an extraordinary lesson to help us break through all those barriers and preoccupations which stand in our way, inhibiting us from becoming the people God wants us to be.
Typically in the gospels, when Jesus is a guest at someone’s home, Jesus the guest tends to take over and act as host. This incident is no exception. So Jesus, having instructed his audience on how to be a good guest, goes on to give advice on how to be a good host – advice which says something to us about what kind of host he himself is, and which tells about God’s behavior toward us and the imitation God is inviting as our response.
The gospel began by telling us that the people were observing Jesus carefully. In some ways, the tragedy of so much of our history has been how much and how often we as Jesus’ disciples have failed to observe him carefully - and having observed him to imitate him.
False humility make life a little easier and ease the way for certain relationships to be more successful. But the true humility of Jesus’ disciples has a new and priceless dimension of meaning, ever since Jesus himself has revealed the humility of God toward us and has invited us to imitate him in that.
Jesus’ advice becomes this challenge for all of us who call ourselves his disciples.
Can people look at us and say: “See how differently they do things”?
Homily at Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, August 29, 2010.