The Challenge of (True) Christian Humility
The message of today’s Gospel, taken from selections of John 14:1-14, can at first strike the hearer as lukewarm, especially after Jesus’s rather dramatic and intense admonitions of the last two weeks. To a certain extent, this is true. Scripture scholars affirm that Jesus’s starting point is not entirely original, but rather relies upon the conventional wisdom of the time rooted in the ancient philosophers’s proverbial insight. In a nutshell: humility is a virtue (or, as I like to say, don’t be a jerk!).
So what is so special about Jesus’s telling of this parable on the Sabbath in the presence of the Chief Pharisee? Part of it is elicited by what Jesus sees playing out before him in real time — various religious leaders are arriving at the location for dinner and are quibbling about who sits where and why. “He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.”
The conventions of polite social and political behavior may have already dictated that people present themselves in a humble way, and therefore Jesus’s simple exhortation about humility at a “wedding banquet” (yeah, Jesus does not earn any bonus points for originality in cloaking his direct reference to those gathered in his presence at a Sabbath dinner) would be seen as a simple reminder of what to do when avoiding embarrassing social faux pas.
However, what makes this a parable is the way that Jesus takes what is generally understood and taken for granted and turns it upside down. It is parabolic because it bends the narrative line of expectation and turns is back on itself in a way that illuminates something new or otherwise unseen. Jesus is a master of unveiling, of prophetic discourse, of speaking the truth that others don’t necessarily want to hear.
What is that truth in today’s Gospel?
Well, that truth is twofold. The first is an affirmation of the short-term goal of appropriate social conduct. This is a reiteration not only of the ancient philosophers, but of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures like we see in the First Reading from Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29):
My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.
A modern translation of Ben Sira’s wisdom might be: “Know your role and be humble!” It is both a call to recognize one’s place in relationship to others and a reminder to think first of what is favorable to God (whose view is far more important than that of one’s social fellows).
Returning to Jesus’s words to those in attendance, those who are quite upset with Jesus to begin with (the Gospel scene opens with the clue “the people there were observing him carefully” from the Greek paratereo, meaning something like “hostile observation” or “close scrutiny”), the message takes its parabolic turn at the end when Jesus takes the conventional wisdom about humility and adds:
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
There is something more expansive here than the usual wisdom. The typical social view was that one should avoid doing something potentially embarrassing and should take responsibility for this himself or herself. Jesus instead suggests that the ultimate humbling or exalting will take place from without — the implication being that this is from God.
As many commentators note, this helps us to understand the next ostensible non sequitur from Jesus to the host of the gathering:
When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Jesus’s address here reminds me of the new book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich. Much of the book focuses on the self-serving actions of those in power — political, media, social, etc. — in Washington, DC, vying for more power and exercising that power in ways that, regardless of the superficial appearance, ultimately is deployed to serve the individual alone.
In a way, we might anachronistically look at the Chief Pharisee with whom Jesus is speaking in today’s Gospel as one of these Washington players. Jesus’s point is that humility for the sake of saving public face or personal gain is not the kind of humility that God desires, it is not true humility. John Martens, the scripture columnist for America magazine, said it best when he wrote recently:
Humility will save you from embarrassment today and might even lead to a higher position at the banquet, but the exaltation Jesus is speaking of has to do with the Messianic banquet at the end of time—that is, places at table in the city of the living God.
The honor that women and men seek in this world — demonstrated in the extreme case of Washington, DC dynamics — is not the honor that is proper to right relationship with God and others. Martens further explains:
True honor is found in humility, and true humility is located in seeking the needs of others, not one’s own. Honor might never be gained in this world for seeking out the poor and the needy, and repayment might come only in the new age, when honor and shame, like poverty and wealth, are burned up in the glory of God. At the banquet in the city of God, all sit in positions of equal rank and all share in the grace that reveals us all to be members of God’s one family.
In this way, Jesus is truly unsettling the hearers of the Word of God. These people would expect a popular preacher like Jesus to give them an earful of conventional wisdom, but instead takes their familiar worldviews and turns them around to illustrate what God really desires: that we exhibit humility and refuse pretense when we do what ought to be done for those who need it the most without any expectation of return, including the short-term goal of avoiding embarrassment in a social setting.