St Mary’s 1/9/19 11th after Trinity 8am, 10.45am
Hebrews 13.1-8,15,16 Luke 14.1,7-14
When I was a young boy I had an autograph book. I still have it. I didn’t chase celebrities but any visitor I looked up to I would invite to contribute. The idea was not just to sign your name but to leave a brief word of advice. What wisdom would you write in one sentence if asked by a young child?
One of the entries says simply this: ‘Humility prevents humiliation’. It’s memorable and it makes a good point. But it also raises questions. Is it the best motive for humility? Should I be humble just to make it less likely that I am humiliated? Isn’t it a bit contradictory to be humble out of self-interest?
At first it seems Jesus is saying the same thing in today’s Gospel. He has been invited to a meal by a leader of the Pharisees. No doubt the invitation said they would be delighted by his company. In fact politics is at work, and they want to watch him and catch him out. Their real motive is to find an opportunity to damage his reputation.
In turn Jesus watches the Pharisees and all the guests. And he notices that many of them choose the places of honour. So he addresses them all and says, ‘When you are invited to a banquet, don’t take a place of honour. If you do, the host may move you down. Take a low place, and you may be asked to move higher. Then you will be honoured.’
That’s all sound advice and in accordance with the etiquette of the times. Even more so than now actually, because in that culture honour and shame were particularly important motivators for action. Jesus is giving practical wisdom for negotiating your way in social situations. But there’s nothing distinctively Christian about it.
Until Jesus adds another sentence. He says, ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’.
That is distinctive, because in the Greek culture of the time, humility was considered to be a vice. It was weak and feeble not to be proud and to make the most of whatever dignity you could display relative to others.
Jesus goes beyond calculating how not to be humiliated at a banquet. He makes it a general rule that we should humble ourselves. Many cultures have not thought this to be a good thing. And we may worry about it as a command. Are there not people who have such low self-esteem that this is the last thing they need to hear? Isn’t the preaching of humility sometimes a way of exercising power and keeping control?
Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper to discover how humility can be a virtue. And I think the next nugget of wisdom from Jesus gives us some help here.
Jesus said, ‘When you hold a meal or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or relatives. And certainly not your rich neighbours.’
Isn’t that an extraordinary thing to say? Have you ever broken that rule? Don’t we break it all the time?
Actually, if you read on a few chapters in Luke’s Gospel you find Jesus organising a supper. He books an upstairs room. He is the host. It’s a meal which has gone down in history as ‘The Last Supper’. And who does Jesus invite? His friends. He breaks his own rule.
Except that it’s not a rule. Jesus is here using the rhetorical device known as hyperbole. He exaggerates in order to strengthen the point. It’s a device which I suspect is less effective with us today. We’re more likely to think ‘That’s over the top’ and lose interest in the argument.
Jesus wants us to think about the kind of people who are often excluded, and he lists ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’ as people to invite.
If we looked in the Old Testament we would find that blind or lame people are excluded from the priesthood. In some Jewish thought of the time they were considered to be excluded from the hope of Israel, which is the banquet hosted by the Messiah at the end of time.
It’s as if Jesus is showing us what God’s idea of a banquet is. A feast where everyone is invited. A world where you cannot look at any other person and consider them less invited than yourself into the richness and joy which is possible within the abundance of God’s love.
Time and again in the Bible, the end of all things is pictured as a feast. It’s a metaphor for life at its best, combining plenty and friendship. Jesus constantly told stories around the theme of food. We’re in the middle of the Nantwich Food Festival. To the locals perhaps not everything may feel like the kingdom of God has come upon us. But for the town to draw thousands in with a free invitation to a festival of food gets something very right.
All equally invited. But it’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t criticise the fact that there are higher and lower places at the meal he is invited to. When he saw some of the Pharisees rushing for the best places, he could have condemned the whole idea of having different levels. But he didn’t – he accepted that.
We hear about equality a lot nowadays, quite rightly, but it’s an idea that can easily become confused. If we forget God then we may think of life as a banquet but with no host. Then it’s not about whether you’re invited, but whether you can make your way to the table. It can become a scramble for the best places, with some not getting near the food at all. There’s no reason to trust that there’ll be enough for everyone, so all the more reason to look after yourself above others.
As Christians, our fundamental worth and dignity lies in the fact that we are invited. God calls us. He wants to share his riches with us. We may not be equal in all kinds of ways, and there’s no denying that. Some of that inequality should concern us and spur us to action. But we shouldn’t be motivated by thinking that our value depends on the size of our share of whatever we think matters.
That is what can cause a greedy scramble for the table. It can also cause a false understanding of equality, which tries to believe that any differentiation of ability or wealth or authority is a bad thing, so let’s not honour success or excellence or offices of responsibility. It’s the kind of thinking that tells children that they can be whatever they want to be if they try. It’s no preparation for the real world.
At Encounter this evening we will be thinking about how the Church can fulfil its role as a sign of God’s universal invitation to his banquet. In other words, how welcoming and inclusive can we be?
When Christ calls us to humility, he isn’t calling for us to put ourselves down. He is asking us to know that we are invited. And to believe that everyone else is – that’s the key thing. It means we should be ready to put ourselves out to draw others in, to include them. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous, Jesus said. Humility isn’t about limiting any joy or honour or achievement or success. It’s about never really being content if someone else is still nudged out.
Humility prevents humiliation. But it does something positive too. It promotes the downtrodden, invites the outsider, encourages the fearful, forgives the offender, befriends the despairing. It does the work of God, who in Christ humbled himself, and on the cross, drew us into his all-embracing love.