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 or, worse, social media trolls trying to cause trouble? They were so busy observing Jesus, that they apparently didn’t notice how he was watching them, watching 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 the alternative manners of God’s kingdom.
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. In an honor-based culture, in a society where one’s social status and rank were of primary importance – and where everyone presumably knew his or her proper place at the table – Macbeth’s assumption was common sense.
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 I actually know someone who did as Jesus suggested (whether or not that was his intention) – and it worked!
Years ago I was studying abroad when the mayor of a major American city was visiting, and the local mayor held a lunch in his honor, to which someone I knew was invited. As he told the story later, he had 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: “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 learning who he was!
Knowing him, I suspect his 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 – and somewhat obsessively - 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). This can prove to be a problem, of course, 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.
But the kingdom of God, as Jesus never seems to tire of teaching us, is about the complete reversal of all those ordinary expectations. Jesus told us this parable to help us break through all those obsessions and preoccupations, which stand in our way, inhibiting us from becoming the people God wants us to be.
One of my seminary professors used to say that the problem is not that Jesus is a male but that so few men are like Jesus. The gospel began by telling us that the people were observing Jesus carefully. In some ways, the tragedy of so much of our Church’s 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 may make life a little easier and ease the way for certain interactions to be more successful. But the true humility of Jesus’ disciples has a new and priceless dimension of meaning, 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 for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, September 1, 2019.