— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Luke 14:1–7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Today’s gospel reading sounds less like Jesus-talk and more like a section from Emily Post’s 2017 book on etiquette—Manners for Today, “Table Tricks that Must Be Corrected, “ or “Talking at the Table.” (Emily Post has been dead since 1960, but her classic books continue to be revised!)
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…But, when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place… (Luke 14:8, 10)
…so tells Jesus to the other guests at the banquet table. Is he offering psychological tips on “how to win friends and influence people,” or are we hearing authentic “Kingdom Talk?” Actually, Jesus was quoting from, or paraphrasing, some of the teachings of Solomon’s wisdom—Proverbs 25:6-7 in this instance:
So don’t 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.”
The Jesus of Luke’s gospel is certainly preoccupied with eating. More references to eating, banquets, tables, and reclining at tables come from this gospel than any of the others. The setting Jesus refers to in his wisdom is actually a wedding feast, and Jesus knows that social settings are most vulnerable for self-aggrandizement. At this setting, he offers advice on humility, and positions this quality characteristic squarely in the center of the Kingdom of God.
Two things bother me about today’s text. The first is that these words might be read like a “Dress for Success” book, listened to like a “How to Get Rich” speech, or followed like The Marvelous Millennial’s Manual to Modern Manners. Such admonitions often stress technique over attitude. “Whether you mean it or not, compliment the host on her dish…the student on his paper…the neighbor on her dog…and you will more than likely fall into good favor with them. Do this…and the psychological advantage becomes yours.”
My second concern is that such civility or etiquette is easily ignored all together. Our culture seems to quickly blow-off manners, etiquette, and civility. A level of rudeness and crassness exists that would embarrass most of today’s grandparents. Today’s society seems to be lacking in sensitivity, gracefulness, and respect despite the fact that we are a more knowledgeable culture that any that has gone before us.
I think the icon of malapropisms, Yogi Berra, who gave us the saying “it ain’t over til it’s over” got it right: “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”
Humility has a way of invading our personal lives at the most unexpected times. Totally inappropriate and male-chauvinistic, I’m going to give this one to you anyway! Three guys die together in an accident and go to Heaven. When they get there, St. Peter says, “We only have one rule here in Heaven: Don’t bump into the penguins!” So they enter Heaven, and sure enough, there are penguins all over the place. It is almost impossible not to bump into a penguin, and although they try their best to avoid them, the first guy accidentally bumps into one.
Along comes St. Peter with the most-unattractive woman he has ever seen. St. Peter chains them together and says, “Your punishment for bumping into a penguin is to spend eternity chained to this woman!”
The next day, the second guy accidentally bumps into a penguin, and along comes St. Peter, who doesn’t miss a thing, and with him is another extremely unattractive woman. He chains them together with the same admonishment as for the first guy.
The third guy has observed all this and not wanting to be chained for all eternity to such an unattractive person, is very, very careful where he walks. He manages to go months without bumping into any penguins, but one day St. Peter comes up to him with the most attractive person he has ever laid eyes on. St. Peter chains them together without saying a word.
The guy remarks, “I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?”
She says, “I don’t know about you, but I bumped into one of those penguins!”
Humility is hard to teach because is it a “bi-product” of other admirable characteristics. Like kindness and generosity, humility is more easily caught than taught…just like arrogance, rudeness, and stinginess usually come about because of being around such in a parent, teacher, or older sibling who has modeled them. Obviously, humility was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. “If you want to be great,” he told his twelve disciples, “start by seeing yourself as the least and serving other people.” “If you want to be first, then be last.” “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose one’s own soul?” Jesus concluded a parable.
Jesus lifted the thinking of the common person about their worth to God by reminding them of their importance in God’s world of creation. “Look at the flowers of the field and see how beautiful they are. Look at the birds of the air and how well they are cared for. If God cares this much about these parts of creation, just think how much God cares for you,” Jesus proclaimed in his “Sermon on the Mount.”
So, how might we describe humility and its importance in the world and its importance to Jesus?
First, think of others more often than you think of yourself. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Don’t think less of yourself; think of yourself less.” Some think that in order to take on humility, he or she must lower the value of himself. As a college student, I remember observing someone I admired praying in public on several occasions. This person’s pattern was to confess to God their utter worthlessness—a “such a worm as I”-kind confession. I began thinking that this kind of confession was the way of ultimate devotion to God and tried superficially lowering myself before God in my private prayers. In the middle of such a prayer one day, it was as though God interrupted to remind me that I was the handiwork of the Creator. Was God’s creation really that bad? Was such a prayer an attempt at manipulating my feelings and God? Or, did I really just need to learn more about serving others. “In the goodness of God you were born into this world…” my benediction declares. Begin by thinking of yourself less and thinking of others more.
Second, humility is the ability to ask for help. It is an inward acknowledgement that you don’t know everything. As a high school student, I hit a phase of being hesitant to ask questions in class. I didn’t want to chance asking what might be perceived as a stupid question in front of others. In a decisive conversation with myself, I determined I’d rather ask what might appear to others as a stupid question and learn, rather than be ignorant about things the rest of my life. One of the steps in Alcoholics’ Twelve Step program is coming to believe that you need help from a Power greater than yourself to solve your problem.
Third, humility is sometimes needed to face the truth. It is easy for us to invest ourselves in what we think is the truth, only to discover that what we have been proposing is not the full truth. I can imagine doctors’ struggle while learning new facts of medicine that contradict older methods. Changing prescriptions or diagnosis takes a lot of humility. It says, “I didn’t fully understand things earlier and now I think I have more of the truth which will benefit us both.” Preachers and theologians are as susceptible to this dilemma as any group I know. We learn things a certain way, devote much energy in our life teaching what we know as the truth, but when we learn that what we have thought was the truth for many years is really not the truth, a huge amount of humility is needed to go in another direction. I’ve had more fun with theology and biblical studies in the past fifteen years than all the seven years of seminary study and prior thirty years of pastoral study combined. The average church-going adult, I heard Marcus Borg once say, has less than an eighth-grade level education in biblical knowledge and of the Christian faith. What they mean is that we stop asking the hard questions, we become afraid of the truth for fear that it might undermine our faith, and we simply repeat cute platitudes we’ve heard rather than wrestle with our faith, as Jacob did with the “stranger in the night.” So, while we have very educated adults in many corners of the organized Church, on average the organized Church has adults with no more than eighth-grade religious education teaching children, youth, and other adults. Some leading church authorities have described this dilemma as a great need for re-education in the Church. Today, there’s more great Christian thinking, writing, and living-out the faith going on than any other time in my life. But, it requires an open mind and heart and much humility.
Fourth, humility is the ability to say, I was wrong and I’m sorry. It is the ability to recognize the truth, accept the truth, and act on the truth where personal mistakes are concerned. That’s really what confession is all about—humility before the truth about ourselves. We may be able to deceive ourselves and some people, but eventually we will find ourselves facing an undeniable truth that has penalized us…sometimes for years.
Finally, humility is the beginning of all prayer. It is the starting point of true praise. Humility is the open door of gaining divine wisdom. It is the gate to ultimate peace and happiness.
Our culture seems full of arrogance and discrimination right now—race, ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, sexual identity. All of these aspects of our identity that would have us assume the right to the higher seats of honor at this banquet table are deemed void of meaning, because it is not we who determine worth at God’s table. If we allow them to define us, they will certainly “disgrace” us.
Jesus concludes his teachings on humility around the table with these words: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And so it is. And so it always is. AMEN.
1 Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. from his article in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4 (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Know Press: 2010), 21-25.
First Reading, Luke 14:1, 7-14
1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Second Reading Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
1Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
7Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.