Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seat of Honor

14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17) – Year C (RCL)
Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14
Sunday, August 29, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Where is Emily Post when you need her? Haven’t these people ever heard of seating charts painstakingly prepared to be sure that everyone is assigned to just the right spot according to their social ranking? Haven’t they heard of place cards, preferably in calligraphy, so the guests will know where they are to sit, thereby avoiding embarrassment of sitting at the wrong table?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses the imagery of a common event, a wedding feast, to convey something about our relationship with God. In the parable, he cautions against sitting in too high of a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished arrive. If that were to happen, the host would need to displace you to make room for the more distinguished guest. With everyone else already seated, you would be forced to move to the lowest spot available, probably over in the corner by the door to the kitchen. And then you would have the embarrassment as you take that long walk past all the other guests, to the lowest place. And they would all know that this was because you think more highly of yourself than warranted.

To understand this a little better, we need to know something about first-century Palestinian wedding feasts. The male guests would all recline on couches to eat. There was a center couch which served as the equivalent of the head table, where the honored guests sat. At the beginning of the wedding feast, people would take their places based on wealth or power. So naturally, the wealthiest or most powerful person present would take his place at the center couch. But as was very common, the very wealthy and powerful often arrived fashionably late. In that case, the person at the center couch, if of lesser status, would need to be displaced. So Jesus was really only offering sound practical advice that you should assume yourself to be of lesser status, so if no one with higher status shows, you will honored by being invited to the center couch. And all will see how you are honored. But what Jesus is really telling us is far richer and deeper than how to navigate social situations with minimal embarrassment.

In this, Jesus is attempting to give some insight into a different banquet, the heavenly banquet to which all God’s people are invited to attend at the end of the ages, when the kingdom of God is truly initiated. And even more than that, the dynamics within the context of banquet tell us something about our relationship with God, who is host. But I think we might have a hard time with the interpretation if we are to view the heavenly banquet and our relationship with God in light of a Palestinian wedding feast. If we take the parable at face value, we are immediately told that some people have a higher standing, more worth, than others. Does that mean that some people are worth more to God or loved more by God, than others? No. If we take the parable at face value, we are told that we can manipulate our position in the eyes of God by pretending to be of lower status than we might really think of ourselves. Does that mean that we can fool God into favoring us over someone else? No.

What all of this really comes down to is humility, and the exercise of humility when it comes to our relationship with God and one another. Unfortunately, humility is a characteristic that, in our culture, we often associate with weakness, low social position, low self-esteem, maybe lack of ambition. And while humility can incorporate some of those meanings, it is more accurately the quality of not being pretentious, proud, or arrogant; of being unpretending or unassuming. And when discussed in a religious or spiritual context, humility is seen as the characteristic of transcending the ego or the self, of not being preoccupied with what we want but focusing rather on what God wants – what God wants for us and from us.

As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II wrote, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other at all” (Temple). In other words, humility provides the freedom to live and move and have our being in God, to allow God to be the foundation and the driving force in our lives, focusing on God rather than on our own ourselves.

The word humility is derived from the word humus, meaning ground, soil, earth. And I think this is significant. If we go back to the meaning of Christian humility, that of transcending of self and focusing on where God is in our lives, on what God wants us to do, haven’t we defined the essence of Christian living, the foundation of how we are to live our faith? Just as humus, soil, is the physical foundation on which we stand and are supported, and is the medium that provides growth and nurture for all living things, so too is humility the foundation on which our spiritual lives stand. Humility is the medium that allows for our spiritual growth and nurture, for our faith to grow and mature. Because it is only when we get out of the way of ourselves and allow God to work in our lives, to be in relationship with us, are we able to grow closer to God, and to grow in our faith.

I think this is wonderfully summed up in the words of one commentator who writes “The human condition is a process of maintaining a balance between knowing oneself to be created in the image of God and recognizing that all are created from dust” (Davidson, 193). It is through the practice of humility that we are able to recognize that while each of us is unique and special in so many ways, we are all ultimately equal in the eyes of God. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. None is more valued than another. And when we die, we will all return to the earth, to humus.

So back to our parable of the wedding feast and what it tells us about how we are to exercise humility in our relationship with God. In the parable, God is the host of the banquet, and the implication is that we are all trying to be deemed worthy to sit in the place of honor – not unlike the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wanted to have places of honor in the heavenly kingdom. The implication also seems to be that if we exercise humility and assume a lower place than we really think we should have – after all , we still have our egos intact, don’t we? – then God might just honor us when he sees how humble we are. Right? Wrong. This is false humility.

What this parable is really saying is that when we assume a place of honor that is not rightly ours, we are puffed up, focused on how important we are, or how worthy (at least we think) we are for a position of honor. And when we assume a lower place out of false humility, we are trying to manipulate God, we are still puffed up. But it is precisely that puffed-up-ness and arrogance that get in the way of our relationship with God. It is that sense of pride that forms a façade, a barrier that keeps God at a distance. But through the exercise of humility, by attempting to recognize that in God’s eyes we are all equal and that none of us is more special than anyone else, we are able to strip away the façades and barriers that stand between us and God. In stripping away those barriers, we are able to present ourselves as we are, to God. We are able to present ourselves to God as he made us – in his image and likeness. And in presenting ourselves as we are, we are able to be in closer relationship with God, which is what the seat of honor is really about – closeness to the host and recognition of being beloved in the eyes of the host.

How do we do that? I think the ending of today’s Gospel lesson provides a clue. Jesus tells the one who invited him that when giving a party, he should not invite his wealthy friends and family who will repay his invitation in kind. Rather, he is to invite those who are poor and marginalized, those who are typically not invited, those who do not take an invitation for granted, those who are not able to reciprocate. In other words, the host is to put aside his own ego and embrace those who are marginalized, those who he is able to help because of his wealth and power.

That is a sure-fire way to find and exercise our own sense of humility – to move outside of ourselves, outside of our own wants and concerns, outside our self-absorption and arrogance about who we think we are, and to help others, especially those who live on the margins. When we put our own stuff aside and turn our attention to the needs of others, we find out that we are not so different from those others. When we strip aside all the things that impress us about our own lives, we find that we are all human beings, that we are all children of God, with the same needs, the same hopes, the same dreams, the same fears. What separates us is extraneous stuff that we have allowed to define us, to be all-consuming of our time and energy – the same things that separate us from true relationship with our God. We get back to the foundation of what makes us human, what provides us with growth and nurture, with humus, with humility. We get back to true relationship with God. When in true relationship with God, our place at the banquet makes no difference. When in true relationship, there is nothing separating us from God. We are there with God, in the seat of honor.

The Good News is that in our relationship with God, and in the divine economy, there is not just one seat of honor at the heavenly banquet, but as many as are needed to accommodate all who are the children of God. So we don’t need to worry about jockeying for position or trying to get a good seat, because the invitations have been sent, the place cards have been set, and each and every one of us is assured of a seat of honor.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Davidson, Lisa W., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2009-2010, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Temple, William. “A Definition.” Bible.Org. <> (23 August 2010).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful analysis of the Gospel. I found it a little confusing, and you really helped me interpret it.

Thank you for your terrific blog. It helps me sort out questions I have even after going to church!