Year C Proper 17: An ambition for humility

So what happens if the audience at the dinner party follows Jesus’ advice? What if the next time they are invited out, they are falling over themselves and each other to sit at the foot of the table? What if the most ambitiously humble of them all manages to scramble into the lowest cushion and sprawl there, with a fixed and slightly frightening smile, waiting to be recognized and invited up to the favoured place at the host’s right hand? The others, denied the lowest prize, sheepishly take their places to his left and his right, and fidget expectantly. And no one says a word.

The host takes his place at the head of the table, the dinner begins, and the ambitiously humble Pharisees at the far end realize that they have been truly humbled, that they will spend the whole evening in the lowest place, except for the wait staff who attend them; but who counts the servants? Do they shrug it off, chalk it up to experience; do they grumble and curse Jesus and his bright reverse pop-psychology ideas – the last shall be first indeed, pah!; or do they laugh at themselves, suddenly seeing themselves through his eyes, always fighting for position whether it be at the top end or the bottom end of the table, when really what matters is being there, being together, being fed among friends?

But then, if the host follows Jesus’ advice, they won’t even have been invited to the next dinner party. Forget them, Jesus says, in front of them all, mind you – they’ll just invite you back and you’ll have to do this all over again at each of their houses. Instead, invite the people you walk past every day in the marketplace, the ones who have no table to invite you back to. At the very least, they won’t be jostling for position at the expense of your honoured guest, and when dinner’s over, because they can’t return the favour, you never even have to see them again!

I would hope that the fact that, in the gospel accounts, Jesus is always getting invited to dinner means that his host and his fellow dinner guests got the joke. Even the narrator throws in the hint: he was telling them a parable. Jesus the preacher amazed his audiences in the synagogues; Jesus the dinner guest knew how to use humour to defuse an awkward social situation and deflect his own impatience at those who considered only their own place at the table.

It is a theme which Jesus continues to develop with parables and stories about wedding banquets and waysides and rich men’s tables and poor men’s hunger, and throughout it runs the melody of the Magnificat:

[The Lord] hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Because, of course, it is God who exalts the humble and the meek, and puts down the mighty. It is only in the imagination of our own hearts that we have the power to evaluate one another’s worth, or validity, or place at God’s table. The host should be under no illusions about his own ability to bestow honour upon another.

I wonder what we are to make of this parable today. The falling over themselves Pharisees part is perhaps easy; we can all laugh at our clumsy efforts to out-honour while simultaneously out-humbling one another, or at least I can. Have you ever got stuck in that door-opening infinite loop – “After you; no, after you; no, I insist, after you; no, no, please, after you…” until someone has to give in and go first even though they know that the first will be last, darn it! Jesus’ joke is on us; how hard it is truly to love another as much as ourselves!

The host who has to offer the most to those who can do the least for him, though; what is the parable there for a parish? Is it meeting the needs of those who will never translate into pledging units? Is it offering prayer for those who might never pray for us? Is it going out after those who will not sit and stay and raise our ASA (our Average Sunday Attendance)? Is it supporting social programs and welfare initiatives on behalf of “the least of these”? This past week, a faith group was threatened with arrest for giving food to homeless people in a public place; in a letter to the city’s mayor, Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina said, “A pivotal principle of Christian morality is summed up in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth when he said, “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” (Matthew 25:40).” We are blessed when we keep a place at the table for those we do not know, do not understand, do not get, because by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.

C.S. Lewis, in a sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory,” says, “There are no ordinary people… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are blessed with scores of opportunities each day to seek and serve Christ in our neighbours, those extraordinary and holy people.

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, those who cannot repay you, and you will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay you,” suggests Jesus. Love strangers and do good to them; in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.

The humbly ambitious, ambitiously humble Pharisees falling over themselves and one another to get to the foot of the table, like the people stuck in the door-holding dilemma, are still missing the point, which is to look around and see who does not have a seat at all, who still needs to be invited in, who has been ignored and neglected, left hungry and out in the cold for too long.

If you look at the verses that we leave out of this morning’s gospel reading, between arriving at the dinner and finding his seat, in the sight of all of the guests, Jesus heals a man who is suffering from dropsy. This is exactly the kind of person that Jesus turns around and tells his host should be invited to join them at the table – and he is standing right there, having just been healed, on the Sabbath no less, by the merciful touch of Jesus’ love.

The response of most of the guests is to turn around quickly to make sure they haven’t lost their place of honour in all of the excitement. Jesus uses humour to remind them gently but in no uncertain terms of the unseemliness of such actions, and the commandment of God to love every neighbour as ourselves, even, especially, the “least of these”.

And the man who was healed gets the joke, and he goes away humming the Magnificat under his breath:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
For God has looked with favour on this lowliest servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me;
and holy is his name.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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