There’s an account from the life of Jesus where he’s been invited to dinner at the house of an influential man and we read that Jesus was watching the other dinner guests, as they came to the table, how they all got caught up in a series of negotiations regarding where at the table they were to sit with several trying to assert their place in the social pecking order so as to get a spot of privilege, closest to the host.
We read that Jesus recognizes a teachable moment and interrupts this complex dance of status-claiming with some words about humility. He says:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
On the face of it, these words from Jesus seem very clear. They are instructions in humility and how a posture of humility in the context of a competition for status and honor can be a face-saving strategy. Jesus is saying that allowing oneself to be honored (and so confirmed in that honor by the host) is better than taking honor for oneself and running the risk of being shamed because of an error of self-evaluation of status. We might also note that Jesus’ teaching is directed at a group of people who are asserting their own status before others and not to a group of people who are suffering humiliation – for that audience, Jesus has a much different, though related message.
So, taking up this teaching of Jesus (if we believe that Jesus has wisdom for us) might involve reflecting on ways in which we — in our own competitive status and honor market — strive for status and honor, and then resolving to try to be more humble. We might even engage in some insightful observation regarding the irony embedded in the idea of striving after humility in order to better position ourselves in life. Or, reflecting on our own sense of marginalization and lack of agency, we might conclude that this teaching that is rooted in how one manages an invitation to the dinner party doesn’t apply at all, when one doesn’t even have a seat at the table.
Before we get fully engaged in all of this, I find that it’s frequently helpful, when we read Jesus giving advice on how to live well, to resist these impulses to apply his advice to our own lives, thinking through why Jesus might be giving this advice, wondering how such an approach might be adopted and put into practice, questioning whether or not Jesus’ vision for a life well-lived is relevant, practical or even achievable in our time. Before trying on Jesus’ approach to see if it will fit or if it even looks good on you, stop and pay attention to this:
When Jesus is describing the best way to live life, he’s always describing his own life and how he’s making it work.
Jesus never tells us to do stuff that he isn’t doing himself. He always walks his talk.
And then there’s another step worth taking before we act, and that’s asking the question, “How does the way Jesus lived his life change the circumstances of my life?”
In his letter to the church at Philippi in Macedonia, Paul quotes what many think to be a very early Christian lyric that describes Jesus’ path of humility.
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus’ whole being is a full expression of the truth he declares, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But the humility that Jesus expresses isn’t just a strategic move to get a good seat; it’s the way in which God engages with us in solidarity. Jesus is humbled in order to be able to come up under us when we feel threatened and shamed, when we feel like we need to assert our place in order to keep people from walking all over us or pushing us out of the picture. Jesus humbles himself in order to go sit with the ones who have the worst seat at the table or no seat at all. He humbles himself out of obedience to the self-emptying nature of God. Jesus’ move of humility isn’t just a weird exercise that he engages in; it is an expression of the essence of who God is.
And, having risked full obedience to the will of God – even though it threatened to destroy him – Jesus now has the best seat. The host of the cosmos has said to him, “Friend, move up higher.”
It gets even better. Jesus has committed to using his place of privilege in service to you. From the best seat, Jesus says to you, “friend, move up higher.” This isn’t just my personal opinion. Recently in chapel we prayed a prayer that is traditionally associated with Psalm 113. We prayed,
Lord Jesus, surrendering the brightness of your glory,
you were born of an earthly mother so that we
might be raised from the dust to share your very being.
This prayer will see its fullest realization in the day of resurrection. It’s what Jesus means when he refers to a “wedding banquet.” Until that day, I believe that human beings accept an invitation from Jesus when they gather together in Holy Communion – the banquet in anticipation of the banquet. It’s a dinner at which everyone has a great seat. It’s a dinner at which we receive the honor of the presence of our host, the risen Jesus.
This honor can fill us with confidence in our own being. After all, we have a place before the creator, so that means that we have a place in the creation.
So, if you’re feeling marginalized, like you have to fight for every little bit of respect you get, I encourage you to find your honor in Jesus. In doing so, I pray that you find the confidence before your neighbor, not to demand your own place — they can’t give you anything that isn’t already yours — but to recognize that you have been empowered to help others recognize the honor that is theirs as a beloved child of God.
And if your life, this side of eternity, has been filled with such privilege that sometimes you don’t even realize that you’re sitting at a head table in human affairs, I encourage you risk sharing your honor with those around you. Defend them when you see them disrespected, unlistened to and made to be nothing because honor grows in the sharing of it. That’s how it works for Jesus.
If you’d like to talk about this or anything else with Pastor Kate or with me, please book us.
Sept. 22, 2021