A Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17 – Year C – 01 September 2013
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
– Luke 14:1, 7-14
I love brevity and I love simplicity and in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Proverbs we get both. “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” (Proverbs 25:6-7). And it just so happens that we get a teaching this morning from Jesus about what that proverb means.
It seems as if all summer we’ve been hearing from Luke about Jesus’ teachings on human behavior – especially how we can improve it. Hospitality was the topic early in the summer when we heard the story about the disreputable woman who crashed a dinner party and showed more hospitality to Jesus than his socially prominent host had.
That was followed by the story about Jesus being invited to dine with his friends Martha and Mary, and how Martha resentfully chose to stay in the kitchen instead of sitting down with Jesus and enjoying his company as Mary did.
Then there was the story about the Good Samaritan which answered the question “Who is our neighbor” since we’re not particularly good at knowing that sometimes. This was followed up by the story about the man who had trouble borrowing a simple loaf of bread from his neighbor to feed a hungry friend who had dropped in unexpectedly during the middle of the night.
In August we heard about the risk of storing up too many possessions for ourselves and losing sight of the real meaning of treasure. We also heard teachings about staying alert, not being hypocritical and today we hear about the perils of pride.
Jesus’ teachings are particularly good at calling us out on our wayward behavior and suggesting ways to improve it. The problem is that our behavior is so ingrained and works so well at masking our faults and even our fears that it becomes too hard to change, and Jesus’s teachings end up being just plain frustrating to hear.
I had a friend in college who found it too hard to change her behavior. Her problem was that she loved to be miserable. Her identity was tied up in being miserable. As much as my friends and I tried to include her in most things that we did, she would constantly make up excuses for why she couldn’t join us – too tired, too much work to do, too many aches and pains. Then she would complain that no one ever asked her to do anything. Out of frustration in realizing she wasn’t going to change, we eventually just gave up on her.
I wonder if Jesus feels that way about us – like giving up on us when we do the same dysfunctional things over and over again. Only the human mind would think that. By the grace of God, the divine mind loves us so much that it is willing to do whatever it takes to redeem us. Jesus’ death proved that.
Even the sin of pride which is what the passage from Proverbs addresses so concisely is worth redeeming in God’s mind. Pride begins with a basic insecurity which leads to behavior that increases our feelings of self worth and soothes our ego. That wouldn’t be so bad if that behavior didn’t set us up or the people around us to be hurt – but it often does. And when it does, it results in disgrace or shame.
I’m not sure there’s anything much worse than feeling shame which is why we go to such great lengths to avoid it. One of the ways we do that is by putting structures or rules and regulations or customs into place that protect our pride from becoming wounded – and those structures have some sort of hierarchy built into them.
If you don’t believe that, then think about the structure that supports any organization or institution – including the Church. There is always someone reporting to someone else or someone having authority over someone else. And the more authority there is, the more layers there are protecting the pride of the people near the top and often at the expense of the feelings of the people below.
So in his parable about pride, Jesus finds himself at a dinner party at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. That word “leader” is the first clue that a hierarchy of social status exists.
Jesus sensed that someone’s feelings were going to be hurt right when he entered the Pharisee’s house. He sensed that the guest who had not yet arrived was more important than the guests already seated at the table; and he knew that according to the social customs of his day, the host would ask one of the guests to move farther away from the head of the table in order to make room for the dignitary – and that would be shameful.
In Jesus’ mind, there was no need for that kind of behavior, especially at the dinner table. He thought that the poor, the crippled, and the lame all had just as much right to be seated right next to the host as the most celebrated person there. The theory of that is one thing; the reality of it, quite another.
And if you don’t believe that, then think about the last time you agonized over a seating chart for a large dinner party. Was it a rehearsal dinner, maybe, or even a family reunion? How much time did you spend thinking about who should sit next to whom or maybe more importantly, who shouldn’t sit next to whom?
And why? Because even in our day, there are rules of etiquette and social customs that need to be respected because they are protecting something that we probably don’t want to admit to. And that’s fear – fear of our pride being wounded if we had an unsuccessful party. So to counteract that fear we work hard to control how the party will unfold by paying close attention to such details as seating.
Although Jesus knew what it was like to be human, he didn’t experience many of our fears – our fears of failure, especially public or social failure which causes us the most amount of shame. What he did experience was compassion for those whom he knew would be hurt and he provided us an alternative to our behavior, and it’s rooted in humility instead of in pride.
But pride is so much easier to do than humility because we get so used to living with and compensating for our fears that it actually begins to feel right. At the base of my college friend’s behavior was fear of not fitting in socially. So she just stopped trying and took pride in her misery. At the base of the Pharisee leader’s behavior was fear of losing his feeling of importance. So he took pride in his ability to tell his guests where to sit.
How much of what we do is based on pride? Enough for Jesus to call us out on it in his teachings. How hard will it be to change? Hard enough that we’d rather mask our fears than face up to them.
So what do we do if we don’t want to keep being frustrated by what Jesus teaches us or by the simple wisdom of the proverbs? Maybe we become aware of our behaviors and the fears that are causing them and risk the discomfort of facing them instead of masking them. Then maybe Jesus’ teachings will begin to make sense to us.
What he teaches us about pride is as concise and brief as the proverb: “…all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” he said, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
So, the way to overcome pride and face the fear of losing our status is with humility. And the way to become humble is to serve rather than to be served; to give rather than receive; to listen rather than to speak. No one said it would be easy but then no one, especially Jesus, said we would have to do it alone.