You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
The book of Proverbs is, as its name implies, a collection of sayings, really a collection of collections of sayings that are intended to help its readers lead a better life. It is, in many ways, a book of good advice. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” it says…and here are a few other tidbits that might help you out along the way. Many of these tidbits are folksy and colorful and fun to read. There’s “Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” and “Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” There’s the beautiful: “One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips” and the gross: “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” There’s the famous “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” and the infamous “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” And then there’s my personal favorite: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.”
Today’s little tidbit is taken from a collection of sayings about how to act should you ever find yourself in the presence of a king: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Good advice. Better to intentionally underestimate your place in society and be told you’re actually cooler than you thought you were than to be told that you are no longer on the A-list. That’s very practical, very smart good council for real, everyday living.
And maybe this is all Jesus meant when he quoted this proverb in today’s Gospel from Luke. He was at a party, he saw the Pharisee’s guests pushing and shoving and jockeying for position, and he was reminded of this little verse from Proverbs. Better not to make a fool of yourself, he offers, by placing yourself in first class and then being told you can only afford coach. Better to sit in the cheap seats in the hope that you’ll get bumped up. Good advice. And maybe that’s all he meant. Maybe if he had seen different behavior at the dinner he would have told another proverb, like “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, or else, having too much, you will vomit it,” or “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
Maybe. But maybe not. Because there are a couple of things here that seem to belie this impression of Jesus as Ben Franklin writing Poor Richard’s Almanac. The first is that word “parable.” “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable,” Luke tells us. And we know that in parables, things are rarely simple, and they are rarely what they seem. We know that parables are not just about giving good advice, about helping us lead a better life here on earth; they are also about revealing to us something of the kingdom of God. Parables are about more than simply advising us on the best ways to act; they are about showing us who we are, who we’re meant to be, deep in our being, as sons and daughters of God.
The second thing that undercuts the image of Jesus-as-Emily-Post is that Jesus’ parable doesn’t end with his words about where to sit at a banquet. He goes on to offer a corresponding parable for the host: when you give a party, don’t invite the people in your social circle, knowing that they’ll return the favor. Invite those outside the circle – invite the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick, the needy. Put yourself in the company of the lowly, and you will be rewarded.
Jesus is not merely playing a game of quote-the-proverb here; he is upping the ante, maybe even changing the game entirely. His words are not advice on proper party etiquette or how to get ahead in the world of kings and powerful hosts; his words are about helping us to find the right seat in the kingdom of God. And he makes it very clear that that seat is with the lowly. We are meant to sit in the back of the room with the rest of the B- or C- or D-listers. Jesus doesn’t suggest this just because it will help us save face (although it might), or just because it means we can serve all of the lowly people we’re sitting with (although that’s never a bad idea). No, Jesus suggests this because these seats are where we actually belong. He is showing us, once again, that we really are lowly. When it comes to your life in the kingdom, he tells us, when it comes to your own soul, don’t bother trying to exalt yourself, because it just won’t work. So find your seat in the lowest place, the humblest place, the place where you really belong.
Now this may sound overly pessimistic or bleak. It may even sound unhealthy. But it is none of those things – it is Gospel truth, and it is good news. The truth is that you and I are lowly, we are broken and vulnerable and sinful and we need help. And why is this good news? Because there is always help to be found. Because when we find our seat with the lowly, when we know and feel the true nature of our sin-sick souls, something truly miraculous happens. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best; he said that the point of accepting our seat with the lowly “… is not to make [the Christian] contemptible nor to disparage him in any way. On the contrary it is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely, that, though he is a sinner, he can share in God’s grace and glory and be God’s child.”* Knowing our sinfulness, knowing that our seats are truly with the lowly, knowing that it is impossible for us to exalt our own selves means that we can, with joy, claim our “one real dignity” – that we are, nonetheless, beloved, chosen, children of God.
And God is one who exalts. Jesus’ parables aren’t just about showing us that our seats are with the lowly; they are also about showing us that our God is one who will search us out in those seats and exalt us. Over and over again, when we are humble enough to see that we cannot save ourselves, when we are vulnerable enough to ask for help, when we are honest enough to choose a seat with the lowly, God helps, God reaches out to us and says, “Come, friend – come up higher. Sit here, with me.”
I wish that we didn’t forget this. I wish that we could always remember that God is there for us, a very present help in trouble. But we don’t always remember, we do forget. We become weighted down with hopelessness and imagine that there is no help to be found. Or we become seduced by our own self-sufficiency and imagine that we don’t need any help that’s out there. But this simply doesn’t work. The more we try to exalt ourselves, the more we fail, and the more we struggle. We struggle to forgive, we struggle to pray. We struggle to be generous, to be merciful, to speak truth with love. We struggle to love our neighbors, our enemies, ourselves. We struggle and fail, and struggle and fail, and this never ending cycle is frustrating and disheartening and exhausting and at worst we find ourselves giving up entirely and at not-quite-the-worst we find ourselves spinning out, off-center, and sick – stressed out beyond belief and sustainability; addicted to something that numbs the pain, like drugs or food or work or another person; hungry for love, desperate for home. On our own, we try, and we fail, and we struggle, and we hear again and again, no, no, get down from here, this isn’t your seat, this isn’t the place for you.
Without God, we can do nothing. But with God, nothing is impossible. So maybe we can stop trying to do the impossible on our own. Maybe we can finally stop struggling, stop laboring so hard to exalt ourselves. Maybe we can have the courage to be truly humble, to pull up a seat among the sick and the broken and the addicted and the lonely, and the lame and the poor and the unemployed and the heartsick and to know that we are at home, and that we are blessed to be there. We are blessed to know that we do not have to do this, this life, this walk, this discipleship, on our own. After all, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is not actually in the Bible, not even in the book of Proverbs. But “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid” is. “All who humble themselves will be exalted” is. And so is “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto you souls.” Come, friend, come up higher. Come unto me. That sounds like pretty good advice.
*Taken from Life Together.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
1 September 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia