Talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way.
...Oxford English Dictionary
I had an epiphany when I read this Gospel passage about where you sit at an event. All of a sudden, it dawned on me why Episcopalians sit at the back of the church! It’s about following Jesus’ admonition to be humble and wait for the host to exalt you and invite you forward. Who knew? I always thought that the folks sitting in back were exiting faster to get to brunch!
Well, in the name of Jesus, let me exalt and invite you up to the front pews!
So, what’s with Jesus in this parable anyway? Has he gone all Emily Post on us, getting involved in the seating charts at weddings? Now there’s a sticky wicket you want to avoid. What’s next, instructions about which is the fish fork and how to use a marrow spoon? If that happens, we will have proof positive that Jesus was the first Anglican!
Why is Jesus seemingly so concerned about etiquette? Etiquette is nice and it helps order our social lives, but it seems a bit out of place to see it in Gospel this way.
What is this parable really about? I think these instructions about where we sit are more about God and our relationship with Him.
Our Collect for today gives us a clue about the seating issue. We prayed, “Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.”
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been focused to increase the practice of true religion. This focus has pitted him against the religious authorities, those scribes and Pharisees we keep hearing about. The crux of that conflict revolves around whether it is permissible to heal on the Sabbath or not; an act Jesus commits four times in Luke. In last week’s lesson, Jesus healed the crippled woman on the Sabbath. In today’s text, Jesus heals a man with dropsy . . . again on the Sabbath. In both instances, his doing so outrages the religious authorities, because they see this behavior as a violation of authentic religious practice. Jesus, conversely sees these healings as practicing true religion and in line with God’s will.
Jesus views the religious authorities as hypocrites in their application of the religious law. While they condemn him for alleviating human suffering on the Sabbath (because it entails “work”), they do not think twice about leading their livestock to water on the Sabbath, or rescuing a child who has fallen into a well. Jesus believed we can’t have it both ways. Either the purpose of God is to alleviate suffering of any kind, regardless of the day of the week, or it isn’t. By pointing out their hypocrisy, Jesus shames them into silence. Angered, they start to conspire against him, as noted in verse 1, “[the Pharisees] were watching him closely.”
One of Jesus’ main goals to increase true religion was by pointing out behaviors that violated the spirit of love, which the law is meant to imbue in us. Concerned with our behavior, he corrects it when we err to get us on the right track and toward building God’s reign. This comes through the practice of true religion.
Today’s lesson on how to seat yourself at a wedding or any other social function is about the practice of humility. It’s an object lesson of the Beatitude that states, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Humility is an essential quality of true religion.
Paraphrasing Tina Turner, you may be wondering, “What’s humility got to do with it?”
Well, everything. The behavior of true humility – of being humble, putting others over and above yourself – is a sign of true religion in God’s reign. It is a behavior we are called to nurture. We don’t do this because it curries favor with God – as if we are earning Brownie points in heaven. We do this because it fulfills the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves and to care for the least among us.
We nurture humility because it increases true religion.
This parable (which is clearly about arrogant people jockeying for position, pushing and intimidating others for the best seats, and currying favor with false platitudes toward their hosts) is a poignant reminder of how we need to examine our own behaviors around humility – or the lack of it.
When it comes to lack of humility and arrogance in many cultures, our own time is no different than First Century Palestine. As writer Michiko Kakutani observed in Friday’s New York Times, “[We live in a] Darwinian, dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world where greed is good, insults are the lingua franca, and winning is everything.”
Let’s be frank: The me, me, me-ism of our time has reached appalling and offensive heights, and it shows little sign of abating. The bombast exhibited by people in religion, politics and business, tooting their own horns, bloviating about their messiah complexes and grabbing the best – if not everything – for themselves, is an outrageous disgrace in a society supposedly built on Judeo-Christian values.
Many of us buy into this sinful way of life because we too are willing to push and shove and bully others out of the way at the table, so that we can grab the most honor, the most prestige, the most good food for ourselves. This leads to a false sense of superiority over others, denying them their fair place at the table, and has become a cancer in our culture.
The parable about how to behave when finding a seat, or how to compose your guest list when you give a luncheon or a dinner, is a pearl of great value.
Are we practicing true religion? Are the fruits of God’s kingdom behaviors being harvested in our lives? I can say this with absolute assurance: If the context of your life is lived in the first person singular, you’re not practicing true religion.
Jesus calls us to hang a plumb line in our lives, supporting what the prophet Micah states:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
- This week, think about what it would mean to not worry so much about yourself and focus on others.
- What would it mean to call or visit a shut-in who is lonely?
- What would it mean to be courteous of others in the public realm?
- What would it mean to stand up and take action when you witness bullying or the denigration of others?
- What would it mean to examine how you spend the material resources you have been given, calculating how much goes toward your own pleasure – and how much goes toward the needs of others?
- What would it mean to seriously reflect on your preconceived notions about race, gender, economic class and sexuality to cultivate more humility in hearing and understanding someone else’s life?
- What would it mean to examine the political, religious and business world, and letting those in power - and those seeking to be in power - know that we need justice, mercy and humility as the content of their behavior, and not arrogance and bloviating?
All of these will increase true religion. Its practice is the only antidote to the fear, hatred, disenfranchisement, anxiety and alienation that permeates our culture and world. If you don’t believe me, ask Jesus.
He has shown you what is good. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.