It’s rather refreshing to encounter the practical side of Jesus. Let’s face it: the Jesus we encounter in Scripture may be the King of Peace, but he is not always the king of clarity. A number of his sayings are ambiguous, difficult to comprehend, and even somewhat cagey.
Not surprisingly, Jesus frequently admonishes his disciples for their perceived ignorance of who he truly he is and what he has come to do. “Do you still fail to understand?” is a persistent refrain from his lips. But we might very well scream in frustration as we hear his words, “I don’t understand what you’re saying! At least throw me a bone!”
Yes, it’s refreshing, then, to find Jesus being straightforward and pragmatic in today’s Gospel. He is here a teacher offering helpful wisdom. Passages like this one remind us of Jesus’s full humanity, lest we forget that he was, in fact, truly human as well as truly divine. Jesus’s earthy advice while dining in the home of a leader of the Pharisees is vivid evidence that Jesus was an astute observer of the human condition. The parable that Jesus tells about a dinner party is, on the surface, uncomplicated in terms of how parables usually go. In some respects, it’s less of a parable than an excerpt from an etiquette guide, common sense wisdom from Miss Manners or Emily Post rather than Biblical wisdom.
It’s simple advice with some direct takeaways: if you are a guest at a wedding banquet, don’t take the VIP seat if it doesn’t have your name on it. Don’t sit in the orchestra seats at the Kimmel Center when you’ve purchased considerably cheaper ones in the nosebleed section. And whatever you do, don’t sit in the boss’s chair at the business meeting.
And here’s the really wise part: wait until the host invites you to move up higher at the table, because otherwise, if you presume to take the most coveted seat without an invitation, and should your host decide to seat someone more important than you where you have planted yourself uninvited, well, it would be rather embarrassing wouldn’t it? No one wants to be asked to move back down the table, do they?
Now, there are several aspects of Jesus’s advice that I find curious. He is being practical and doling out wisdom that fully acknowledges human ambition, competition, and the quest for recognition. He knows all too well how we long to be in places of honor but probably detest social embarrassment even more than we covet social status.
But does it bother you even a little that Jesus is commending a social grace that appears to be humble but when poked a bit further is really more about avoiding humiliation than about avoiding pride? Either way you slice it, the end goal is ultimately still about having the place of honor, even if the means of getting there appears to be humbler.
And more than that, why is Jesus even talking about different degrees of status and seating by rank? What happened to the great leveling that his very life ushers in, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female? Jesus may be helpfully practical when he advocates tact in knowing your place in social settings, but is his advice too practical or too shrewd? Is the practice of cunning actually compatible with humility?
We shouldn’t be surprised to hear that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This good news is not unexpected news if we’ve read our Bible. These words recur all over the place in Scripture, whether in that exact succession of words or in variations on the same tune. The proud will be scattered in the imagination of their hearts. The mighty will be cast down from their thrones. The rich will be sent away empty. And the lowly and meek will be exalted.
But practical Jesus knows the weakness of human nature. He knows those desires misshapen by the fall of Adam, that arrogant ambition evident in the building of the tower of Babel, and so time and again he offers his timely refrain, because people still don’t get it, they still don’t understand: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted.
But I fear that we still don’t get it, we still don’t understand what Jesus has been saying, do we? And Jesus, of course, knows this all too well, and it’s why he has offered such practical advice. He knows we need his help to understand what humility means in human terms, and so Jesus offers more wisdom after his parable about humility. He now addresses the person hosting a luncheon or dinner. Ever so perceptive, Jesus knows that it’s not only the guests who are prey to human pride and ambition; it’s also those hosting the dinner party, perhaps especially so. He lets no one off the hook. In this case, the one who is ostensibly serving through the hosting of a party is one who is at the same time all too vulnerable to pride and keeping up appearances. Hyacinth Bucket, Jesus is talking to you.
The Achilles’ heel of the dinner host or hostess is the act of service itself. The coveted gesture of reciprocity from the dinner guest is the motive for service and hospitality. The dinner host invites those who will be most likely to offer a dinner invitation in return. In all likelihood, the guests in this case are the rich and famous, the powerful, or the ones who offer the most splendid feasts and whose own guest lists are the most sought-after places in town. I imagine we’ve all been there at some point: talk to the persons who will give you something in return or can do something for you, and well, don’t worry about the others.
So Jesus presents an antidote for this temptation to curry favor: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” To your feast, invite those who have no home in which they can host you in return. Invite those who are part of the anonymous fabric of the workplace and who can never help you get that promotion you’ve always wanted. At coffee hour, engage in conversation with that person who may never come back to this church or ever offer a large pledge. Because then, you will be doing it not to gain some earthly reward but because you can do nothing else. You are doing something simply because it’s the right thing to do, with no ulterior motives.
The problem is that when we’re doing the righteous thing—even when we’re compassionately inviting the poor, the crippled, and the lame to our parties, even when we are trying not to be Hyacinth Bucket in our own social circles—we are always vulnerable to that great temptation of pride. We are always susceptible to over-scrupulous questioning of our motives, because after all, we’re human. It may be that we invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame because that’s what we’re supposed to do, and then we are proud of ourselves for doing so. We volunteer at some charitable organization because it’s a good work, and it feeds us as well as those we serve. But before long, we’ve proclaimed our altruism on social media and become the victim of humble bragging. And we have fallen into pride once again. It’s a frustrating, vicious cycle. Secretly, no matter how hard we try, we are still desperately longing to hear that anonymous but seductive voice saying, “Friend, move up higher.”
And I think this is why Jesus is so shrewd in his advice. He knows better than you or I that our humility has the potential of being our downfall into hubris. He knows that when we “want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” He knows that the desire to get the upper hand on sin that is part and parcel of being human can, in and of itself, be a snare and stumbling block, and so he offers us a pragmatic way out of it. He approaches us on our own terms.
He urges us to get on with very practical tasks because the only way to be humble is to start practicing it and to learn it, even if our first efforts are distorted. No doubt, we’ll stumble at first. Our initial attempts to take the lower seat at the table will be full of secret yearning for some alluring worldly voice to say, “Friend, move up higher, and take your place next to me.” And Jesus knows that our early forays into hosting dinner parties will be characterized by carefully crafted guest lists of the least of these followed by contented pride in how generous we were in our invitations. But we have to start somewhere. Over time we may find that we are longing less for that voice to call us up the table, and we may feel a bit less satisfied and self-conscious about our supposedly selfless efforts.
Because Jesus understands what all along we have not truly understood, that while we can intentionally humble or exalt ourselves of our own free will, God has the final word. God’s grace is the only thing that can imbue us with true humility. And maybe one day, we’ll begin to see that we don’t need to curry God’s favor the way we would try to do so with our dinner hosts. Perhaps we’ll see that God doesn’t operate according to the wisdom of Miss Manners or Emily Post. Maybe we’ll see that we don’t have to engage in tit-for-tat reciprocity to earn God’s invitation to a higher place at the table.
God has already called us higher up the table. We are already precious and honored in God’s sight, even though we so frequently fail to perceive it. And all our jockeying for position and status is because we still just don’t understand.
If we could only get on with the work of trying to be humble, of practicing those slow, baby steps of humility in all its floundering messiness, with God’s grace, we’ll surely begin to discern God’s voice more clearly, not calling to us from way up the table, but right next to us, indeed in our very hearts, saying, “Friend, move up higher; move up even higher than that high place where I’ve already placed you. I’ll help you move up as high as you can go to that place where you will be with me forever and ever. And we’ll feast together, and there are plenty of seats to go around. Move up higher, my friend, and rest your head on my chest, and there you’ll rest eternally.” And at the end of the day, this is the only voice and the only place that ever matter.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
1 September 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
 Romans 7:21