Table Talk (On Humility)
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2013, Labor Day Weekend.
Someone once said that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is always going to a meal, eating a meal, or coming from a meal.
Meals were social occasions. Throughout the gospel we can see that people noticed what one ate, where one ate, with whom one ate, whether one washed before eating, and where one sat when eating. All of these determined, and were determined by, one’s social position. And it’s true, what was said about eating with Jesus. The common meal is not only the principle place where healing, teaching and fellowship take place; and the open table becomes the metaphor and the harbinger of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ ministry. The table is still the central symbol in our worship together.
In our passage today, Jesus has accepted an invitation to share the Sabbath meal at the home of a leading Pharisee. Once in the home he observes the guests jockeying for position near the host, and Jesus tries to introduce a little humility where humility seems to be lacking.
According to womanist theologian Emilie Townes, who was installed this week as the 16th Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, at a Palestinian wedding feast the male guests recline on couches, with the center couch being the place of honor, its inhabitants chosen according to wealth, power, or office. If a prominent man arrives late, as is often the case, someone of lesser rank is asked to move to a less prestigious location.
That may have already been clear, or at least imaginable, from the gospel. I am drawn to this story because I particularly like when Jesus offers practical advice, “choose the lowest place so that you can be invited up.” Jesus is probably citing Proverbs 25 which states “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.” He is gently reminding the guests of the simple wisdom of the Jewish covenant and that they are, at the moment, either forgetting themselves or too caught up with themselves, you decide, but in any case are falling short in their behavior.
But simply taking away from this passage that one ought to practice humility will land you in several traps; humility is an elusive thing and cannot easily be pursued. The pursuit of humility for its own sake can lure you into at least three traps.
TRAP NUMBER ONE: Humility as calculated and self-serving.
At least one biblical scholar, Alan Culpepper, seems to think that Jesus is saying something like, “Play the [status] game, but play it more shrewdly. Do not be like the buffoons who set themselves up for embarrassment.” A little humility might just lead to promotion. But is Jesus really just offering “A more prudent and effective way to gain honor?”
The renowned Presbyterian preacher Fred Craddock thinks that it is we, not Jesus, who hear this text as a new method for self-advancement. He writes, “The human ego is quite clever and, upon hearing that taking the low seat may not only avoid embarrassment but lead to elevation to the head of the table, may convert the instruction about humility into a new strategy for self-exaltation.” “Taking the low seat because one is humble is one thing, taking the low seat as a way to move up is another.”
Have you heard of the phrase “servant leadership?” This phrase always rankles me, because once service or servanthood becomes a leadership style, it re-inscribes the power of those already in leadership. Further it becomes a strategy for attaining and legitimating one’s leadership position.
But Jesus never suggests anything of the kind. He simply insists that we are to be the servants of all. No foothold in the leadership or power structures of this world.
Whenever I hear the term “servant leadership” a yellow flag goes up for me. For it leaps headlong into trap number one: humility as calculated and self-serving.
Now anyone who has seriously reflected upon and tried to practice humility has likely discovered TRAP NUMBER TWO: pride — the insidious way we can be proud of being humble!
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when your perfect in every way.”
I recall exactly where I was when I realized that the virtue of humility had its own shadow side. I was a high school student, sitting at a red-light at the corner of Dixie Highway and Ashland Avenue, just two blocks from my home in Flossmoor, IL. I was returning from a Sunday evening youth group discussion on humility – and feeling pretty good about my contributions to the program. After our closing prayer, my pastor sent us out the door with words of Fred Buechner, words I then said out-loud, sitting at the traffic light, as if hearing them for the first time: “I wish there were a way of being good without feeling so damn good about being good.”
And that good feeling, pride and self-righteousness, can wield humility as a weapon.
Yet even if we can avoid the traps of self-advancement and pride, there’s yet a THIRD TRAP. And it has to do with WHO WE ARE and HOW WE HEAR the exhortation to “be humble.” I read during vacation that ‘those who most need to hear a word of grace are more likely to hear a word of judgment, and those who might benefit from hearing a word of judgment are more likely to hear only grace! Humility is certainly a virtue, but an exhortation to be humble can be dangerous to those who already have little sense of their own worth.’ Humility must not be confused with self-abasement. As Jesus said, “Love your neighbor AS YOU LOVE YOUR SELF.”
So as I read this text and found myself wrestling with how to avoid these traps, I realized that one can’t. But Jesus gave these instructions not to individuals but at a communal, Sabbath meal.
“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. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”
Jesus begins by listing the four groups among whom he was likely sitting – friends, bothers, relatives or rich neighbors of the host; people of similar status who could return the invitation next weekend; who in turn could be invited back again the following weekend. Then Jesus lists four groups of people who would not ordinarily have been invited to the home of a respected religious leader: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. But Jesus says invite them because they cannot repay the invitation.
For by inviting those who simply cannot repay the invitation, the host, the guests, even the table itself are all freed from the traps of status, pride and self-esteem. The Sabbath becomes not only a remembrance of, but a celebration of, our liberation from all that binds us and enslaves us; from all that prevents us from treating one another as equals. God’s welcome and care both defies and frees us from the status and striving of our world, reorienting us toward just and hopeful relations with one another.
In other words, Jesus says, we will be blessed
Interestingly, and from a Green Team point of view, the word humility comes from the same Latin root as the word humus or rich soil. Humility might best be understood as being ‘grounded’ in what is most important. God’s welcome of us, and trust in us, shows us the model of genuine humility: treating others as equals and collectively – COLLECTIVELY – entrusting ourselves to God’s care. No traps. Just trust. And when we endeavor to practice such humility, this table becomes indeed God’s table, the real feast, the heavenly banquet, right here, right now.
The Feast is Ready to begin … [title of the hymn we sang immediately as we came to the Table].
Note: Prayers for Syria as well as a call to resist military intervention, the concerns of those who labor and appreciation for those who fought and fight for labor rights, and a local murder/suicide were all addressed at the table in the context of prayer as we enlarged our table with the concerns of our community and world.