“I think I am, actually humble,” a politician said in a recent interview, “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
This isn’t a sermon about the presidential election, of course. We’re all tired of hearing about that, we know who we’re voting for, and why; it doesn’t do anyone much good to belabor it from the pulpit. But when I read the words of Jesus that we find in today’s gospel lesson, I started thinking about what a tricky thing humility is, how it seems like you can’t have it if you’re thinking about it, and I remembered those words: “You’re not known to be a humble man,” the reporter noted. “I think I am, actually humble,” the candidate interrupted. “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.” What is humility, really? Are we all supposed to have it? Is it a virtue? What’s up with it?
Today’s lesson finds Jesus at a sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Tension is mounting as his following grows and his teachings become more obviously critical of the powers that be. Nevertheless, he is invited to the house of this religious leader to share a sabbath meal. Was this invitation an olive branch, an effort to reconcile the burgeoning conflict between the Pharisees and this strange itinerant rabbi? Or were they trying to gather more evidence of his subversive and unlawful behavior?
In any case, as Jesus sees the guests maneuvering for position, he offers words which, at first glance, seem to be an etiquette lesson, but on examination go a bit deeper than that. In Jesus’ society, a wedding banquet would have taken place with guests reclining on couches arrayed around the room. Much like today, the seats closest to the host would have been the most prestigious, while the seats furthest from the host would have been the least prestigious. Unlike today, however, it would have been typical for the host to call for a rearrangement of the seating if guests took the wrong places, as opposed to our society where a guest in the wrong seat would cause a flurry of wedding party members whispering in corners. Jesus’ advice resonates with scripture passages from Proverbs, urging people to choose a low place, and be promoted, rather than jockeying for position and ending up humiliated and relegated to a lower seat.
It would seem that Jesus’ lesson lauds humility and encourages us to be humble. But, as one commentator I read noted, the people most in need of that message are the least likely to realize that it applies to them, and to follow through on it. After all, one of our nation’s candidates for president has claimed on national television that he is “much more humble than you would understand.”
So what benefit is there to the play-acting humility Jesus seems to urge people to? It seems like, if his listeners adhere to his teachings here, they will simply go through the motions of going to the lowest place, waiting expectantly for the thrilling moment of being singled out and invited up to a higher position. It doesn’t seem like much good could come of people who think highly of themselves making a big show out of how humble they are. In fact, I would think that behavior would just come across as condescending, falsely modest, fishing for affirmation of their high status relative to the other guests.
What Jesus knows, though, even if his listeners don’t, is that relationships, conversations, human contact - these things change us. When people who think highly of themselves hold themselves aloof, maintaining strict separation from the ones they think they outrank, they never have a chance to have their worldview challenged. They never get a chance to pass the bread to someone who is different from them, to exchange pleasantries with someone poorer or less well-connected. Perhaps Jesus’ advice to choose the lowest place is not only about that moment when the host elevates the ostensibly humble guest. Perhaps it’s about what you learn about yourself, about the world, and about God when you sit down next to someone the world says is beneath your attention. Perhaps even acting out humility is enough to provoke transformation.
In the socially stratified world of Jesus - and in our society, which talks about equality but doesn’t always follow through - people tend to cluster in groups that are similar: similar race, similar gender, similar politics, similar income, similar religious beliefs, similar education levels, and so on. What Jesus’s teaching, given to a very homogeneous room full of people who share gender, ethnicity, religion, and language, challenges them and us to do is to break away from that siloed, stratified approach to life in community and engage differently with the world. Perhaps the promise of being exalted by the party host is enough to get some people to the low seats at the table. But the encounters they have there could open their eyes to some surprising realities. Perhaps, if they are willing to go sit with a less prestigious party guest one day, then one day they’ll be able to strike up a conversation with a foreigner, or a slave, or even a woman. Perhaps, one day, they’ll find themselves giving a banquet where they invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and perhaps they’ll be doing it not because some rabbi said it was a good way to get brownie points with God, but because they’ve discovered that life is fuller and more meaningful if you spend it with people who don’t look like you.
In conversations with other clergy about this passage, one of my colleagues mentioned that this text brings up difficult memories for her, as someone who for a period of time was a single mom, not working at a church, just attending as a congregant. She recalled the times that she would hear fellow church members talking about the need to “go help all the single mothers out there,” and how condescending and alienating that felt to her. It’s important to be attentive, as we seek to follow Jesus’ teachings, that the ways we do that build bridges instead of barriers. It is good to offer charity, but not sufficient: we are called to a spirit of respect, dignity, and mutuality for God’s beloved children, whether their seat is better or worse than ours in the wedding banquets of life.
As many of you know, this church operates a sandwich line ministry in cooperation with the Franciscan Community Center. A couple of years ago, I noticed that many of our guests were interested in talking with each other and with me about faith, scripture, and theology. So we started a bible study, gathering four or six or eight of us around a table for thirty minutes after sandwich line ended each Tuesday and Thursday. It’s open to anyone who comes to sandwich line and wants to attend - volunteers or guests. I thought I would be teaching our neighbors about the bible, but of course it didn’t go quite the way I expected. I learn things every week – about what God is doing in our neighbors’ lives; about other ways of reading scripture; about the faith lives and traditions of our Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal, or Orthodox neighbors. We teach each other. I have taught, but I have also been taught, because when we sit around a table with people who are different from us, and encounter one another with a spirit of openness and authenticity, it is transformative for everyone.
That was at the heart of the way Jesus lived his life and did his ministry: a spirit of mutuality and respect, a willingness to sit down to eat with tax collectors and sinners, rich people and beggars, children and women and men. Jesus invited them to the table not because it’s nice to be charitable, but because the way of God’s Kingdom is to tear down the walls that keeps us isolated and segregated one from another, and rebuild them into tables where everyone can feast. Jesus came to us, to people afflicted by a stratified society that plays us against one another with systems of sexism and ableism and racism and classism and colonialism and homophobia, and he sat down at table with unlikely companions. And he asks us to do the same. When you give a wedding banquet, he says, invite my friends. Don’t overthink it. Don’t tell me how humble you are. Don’t stress out about whether you’re humble enough. Don’t worry what you’ll serve, or what people will say about you, or what you’ll do if things get tense. Invite my friends. Just invite my friends. That’s it.