Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

 

So most of you have been to a wedding reception before. In most cases the seats around the table are assigned. In the case of my brother’s wedding this past spring, it was he and his fiancée who’d worked together on assigning the seating at the tables.

 

You can tell how the couple perceives you by observing the people around you at the table. Here are relatives to your left, so you’re not at a table with all strangers. Here are friends of the bride at your right. You wonder: “Do they think we are a good match?” Do they think that we share things in common?” And, there across the table, is someone who makes you feel very uncomfortable. You again wonder: “Don’t they know I don’t care for him very much?” “Why would they want to make me feel awkward?”

 

In our Gospel lesson the leader of the Pharisees has invited Jesus to a dinner party.  The other Pharisees are observing Jesus. But they are not the only ones. Jesus is observing them too. While they are watching him, he is watching them.

 

Why is there this mutual surveillance? We saw last time that for the religious authorities Jesus poses a threat to the order of things, the status quo, of which the religious authorities are the guardians. He actually had the audacity to heal a woman on the sabbath, thereby violating the fourth commandment…at least according to the judgment of the synagogue ruler.

 

Well, here it is another sabbath, and the Pharisees are watching him like a hawk: Is he going to do something again to desecrate the sabbath? 

 

Now it should go without saying that the Pharisees are his adversaries, relentless in their campaign to discredit him. But let’s be clear. Jesus has no personal vendetta against them. His way of being around people, including the Pharisees, leads to “curiosity and to probing questions and stories that allow people space to explain themselves or explore alternatives,” as Bible student Chelsea Harmon so eloquently puts it.

 

Well, it so happens that Jesus does see something that arouses his curiosity. Dinner is served, and the Pharisees move into the dining room to find their seats. Jesus notices that each of them makes a beeline for the seats of honor.

 

At first glance, a dinner party in which seats are ranked in terms of greater and lesser honor may seem unfamiliar to us. But the custom is not so far removed from our experience. If you’ve ever gone to a fundraiser dinner, you will see that the biggest donors are seated in the most prominent places in the room. Or if you were raised in a traditional home, you’ll recall that the chair at the head of the table was for dad alone. None of us kids would’ve ever dreamed of sitting in his chair.

 

So each of the Pharisees believe they deserve a chair at the proverbial head of the table, and they behave accordingly. And this prompts Jesus to tell a parable, or, more accurately perhaps, a moral lesson.

 

Consider yourself a guest at a wedding banquet. When you go into the hall, don’t choose the place of honor, lest the host has invited a guest more distinguished than you, and asks you to give him your seat. Then, humiliated, you will have to go and find another place to sit.

 

Instead, go to that place first. Then, when the host sees you there, he will come and escort you himself to a more important seat, exalting you in the eyes of everyone who sees you.

 

None of this was new to the Pharisees. Jesus only reminds them of what is found in their own wisdom tradition. “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” reads Proverbs 25:6-7.

 

And the great Rabbi Hillel, who predates Jesus by 100 years, said something similar: “My humiliation is in my exaltation and my exaltation is in my humiliation.” “Better for a man to be told: ‘Ascend on high!’ than for him to be told: ‘Descend below!’’ (Midrash, Shemoth Rabba 45.5).

 

Jesus’ gloss on the saying of Hillel is: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

 

Now this parable must have gone over like a lead balloon. Not exactly what you want to say at a dinner party, unless you want to kill the mood.

 

But Luke wants us to see Jesus as a prophet after the pattern of Elijah and Elisha. Just as these Old Testament prophets relentlessly denounced the corrupt religion of their own day, so Jesus does the same in his day.

 

The Pharisees were Torah scholars, experts in Jewish law. They should practice what they preach! With this parable, Jesus confronts them, and calls them out on their hypocrisy.

 

Jesus then turns his attention from the kind of guests they ought to be to the kinds of hosts they ought to be. This time he confronts the leader of the Pharisees directly, with these words.

 

“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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:12-13).

 

This is bold. How dare Jesus question the host about who to include on his guest list? Commentators suggest that Jesus could have exposed a raw nerve here. There were two schools of Pharisees at the time of Jesus. The one was called the House of Hillel, the great Rabbi we already have mentioned. The second was called the House of Shammai.

 

They disagreed on whether or not to enroll the poor in the yeshiva to study Torah. The disciples of Hillel said you should, while the disciples of Shammai said you should not.

 

Talk about bringing up such a divisive topic at a dinner party! In our own time of bitter political divisions, we’ve come to appreciate that there are certain topics we just don’t bring up at the dinner table unless we want trouble.

 

Our Gospel lesson is a simple one, but one not easily learned. When we are on the guest list, our attitude should be that of humility, an attitude that leaves room for surprise and for grace.

 

Unfortunately, humility has got a bad rap. When we hear the word, we picture someone with drooping shoulders, with head hanging low. We imagine that he’s always tearing himself down, even to the point of boasting how he is always forgotten, neglected, and taken for granted. 

 

That person is unattractive. Who wants to be around a doormat, not to mention one who teaches others to be the same? We have a hard enough time convincing our children to be proud of themselves, to discover the gifts they have to offer, and to find value in their accomplishments.

 

But humility does not mean “beating oneself up for allegedly spiritual purposes” (Gregory Popcak). Whenever the Bible speaks of humility it speaks at the same time of wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks. “Let him show it by living well, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13)

 

Humility and wisdom are tied together, because humility comes when see ourselves in the right way, when we see ourselves as God sees us.

 

Our word “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus” which means “from the earth.” Incidentally, our word “human” also comes from the same word. That should remind us of the creation story: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).

 

Humility helps us to see that, regardless of our status, wealth, or achievement, we all come from the same source, we all have the same creator, we all have the same value.

 

If this is so, then each has something worthwhile to contribute, to us as individuals, as well as to us as communities.

 

That’s why Bible student Jan Richardson says that humility opens us up to relationship. Not so much with humility’s opposite, which of course is pride. It says: “These others are beneath me. They have nothing to give me that I don’t already have. Nothing to teach me that I don’t already know.” Others sense this attitude, and they shun the proud.

 

But humility is not so quick to dismiss them. It asks “What do these others have that I can receive? What do they know that they can teach me?”

 

The others sense this attitude, and after they give, they in their turn open themselves to receiving what the humble can give, what they can teach, so that there is mutual exchange. 

 

Humility is the virtue that makes me open and receptive to others, that makes me able to enter into relationships with them.

 

Maybe I do share things in common with that person who sits in the seat next to mine at the wedding reception. Maybe I should open myself to what she may have to share instead of retreating behind my wall of pride.

 

Those of you who are familiar with the Catholic Church have probably heard the term “encyclical” before. An encyclical is a long letter, attributed the pope, that addresses the most pressing social issues of the day. It is meant for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

 

In 2020, Pope Francis published the social encyclical titled, Fratelli tutti. In the opening paragraphs, he writes how difficult it is for us to open ourselves up to a genuine encounter with others. In this connection, he reflects on the lost art of listening.

 

In a world where our devices and busy schedules compete for our attention, we find it hard to really listen to what the other person is saying. Halfway through, we interrupt him to finish his thought for him. Or worse, we disagree with what he is saying before he is even finished saying it.

 

But the ability to sit down and listen is characteristic of those who welcome others into their lives.

 

The Pope holds up his namesake St. Francis of Assisi as a counterexample. St. Francis “heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm, and he heard the voice of nature. He let these voices shape his way of life.” 

 

This humility that makes me able to listen to, learn from, and share with others will certainly influence me when I am the one making the guest list.

 

In the same encyclical we mentioned a moment ago, Pope Francis remarks how easy it is for us in the digital age to be selective in our relationships. We are used to hitting the “like” button or not hitting it. We are used to giving something a “thumbs up” or not giving it. We stop following someone on our social network feed.

 

In the same way, we choose the people whom we wish to invite into our lives. People we find unpleasant or disagreeable we simply unfriend in an instant, delete with a keystroke. We thereby draw a close circle around us.

 

Remember at the wedding reception that I was most comfortable at my table with those relatives whom I know. 

 

But what if we enlarged the circle to include those in the category of people that Jesus mentioned—the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind?

 

We church people hear about those in this category, and we assume that it’s our signal to take up our duty to give and provide care to them.  

 

But including them on our guest list is not the same as setting up soup kitchens, building shelters, or opening up day cares (though of course those are all good and necessary). It is not the same as showing kindness to them just because they are fellow human beings. It is actually giving them a seat around our table.

 

And that is difficult. It is not just that they are afflicted with poverty or infirmity. It’s that they are different.

 

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, which serves people with intellectual disabilities in 38 countries, writes about how difficult it was for him when introduced for the first time to a man with intellectual disabilities. Vanier was quick-witted, competent and efficient. His behavior was goal-oriented. What was he going to say around him? But as this man and later others received him, they brought him into a world of simple relationships, of fun and laughter, a world largely unknown to Vanier.

 

It was a difficult, but in the end a very rewarding experience, on which it was impossible to put a price tag. No doubt Vanier received a foretaste of what it will be like when those such as he will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14).

 

Luke doesn’t tell us how that Sabbath-day dinner party ended.  But we have the feeling that when Jesus left, his host did not smile and say, “Come again!”  In fact, in the rest of Luke’s gospel we will never again read that Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority.  The next dinner party Jesus attends is at the beginning of Luke 15; only this time he is the guest of tax collectors and “sinners.”

 

But let us join him there. There we will learn together with the others who join us what it means to be truly human. Amen.

 

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