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, or like “Wikileaks” looking for something to disclose to a cynical and suspicious audience? The funny thing is that they were so busy observing Jesus that 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 play Macbeth [Act 3, Scene 4], when Macbeth welcomes the various lords, he assumes that they all know who ranks where (a reasonable expectation in any traditional society), and so he says to them: You know your own degrees; sit down. Jesus, however, chose instead to offer alternative advice, obviously based on the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of the great; for it is 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!
In the summer of 1993, I was studying in Israel. New York’s mayor was visiting, and Jerusalem’s mayor was holding a lunch in his honor, to which an American priest I knew was invited. As he told the story later that day, he wandered into the banquet room and just sat down at a table where there were several empty seats. No one seemed to notice him or pay him any particular attention, 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 to the head table, all the while noticing how the very same people who had not noticed him or paid him any attention a few minutes before were now suddenly very interested in finding out who he was!
Knowing my friend, I suspect such modest behavior came quite naturally to him. 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 others who will give them the praise they think they deserve (but are afraid to claim for themselves). This can prove to be a problem, of course, if your poor self-esteem turns out to be accurate, if – instead of your humility being contradicted - when you take the lowest place, no one says, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Most of us, I suspect, would rather not risk confirming that we do in fact belong down there in the lowest place. So frightening is that 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, involves the complete reversal of all our ordinary expectations. So this seemingly ordinary lesson in manners served for Jesus as an extraordinary lesson to help us break through all those obsessions and preoccupations with status and reputation and image, which inhibit 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 God 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 failed to observe him then inevitably failing to imitate him.
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 for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 28, 2016