Luke 14:1, 7-14
It was the last week of my senior year in high school. My two best friends and I were seated in a hot, overcrowded auditorium for the Annual Awards Assembly. My two friends were never in their seats for long as they took turns being called up on stage to accept one academic award after another. Envious of their repeated success, I began to check out of the festivities and started to daydream.
Then, much to my amazement, my name was called. My friends nearly had to push me out of the chair because I was not really listening at that point. Once up and walking toward the stage, I felt this enormous surge of pride. So, instead of using the side stairs that were draped with students’ bodies, I decided to jump up onto the stage to receive my award. Midway through the jump I came to an awful realization that I wasn’t going to make it. My leg hit the stage. Soon it was gashed and bleeding as I fell backwards into the crowd. With both leg and pride bleeding, I climbed the crowded steps, received my award while listening to the entire assembly break out into a fit of laughter. Somehow, I had managed to give literal meaning to the old axiom, “pride goeth before the fall.”
I think of this most embarrassing life moment in times when my pride starts to inflate like a balloon. I also thought of this embarrassing moment when re-reading the story of Jesus at a dinner party hosted by a local Pharisee. In Jesus’ day, U-shaped tables defined the social order. Elizabeth Caldwell writes, “The closeness of your place to the middle of the U indicated your importance to the host, since there was the most coveted seat” (Connections, Year C, Volume 3, p. 282). Jesus tells two stories, one about attending a dinner party and one about hosting one.
The first story he tells are of guests who get to the party and immediately seat themselves in the best seats. It is not long before they get a tap on the shoulder from the maître de who tells tell them that those seats are already reserved. His words to the wise in this story sound much like the song that Mary sings at the opening of Luke (1:52): “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
Jesus never tires of telling stories about the importance of humility for those who would follow him. “Humility is often confused with the . . . self-deprecation of saying you’re not much a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are,” wrote the late Fred Buechner. “Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.” Such false humility is hardly what Jesus has in mind.
In her book, “Grace (Eventually),” Anne Lamott talks about wanting the best seat at the spiritual banquet, the seat that once taken demonstrates how she excels in humility. She writes, “I know that when someone gets a big slice of pie, it doesn’t mean there’s less for me. In fact, I know that there isn’t even a pie, that there’s plenty to go around, enough food and love and air. But I don’t believe it for a second. I secretly believe there’s a pie. [And] I will go to my grave brandishing my fork.”
So, if humility isn’t a rhetorical game of false-pride and not a desperate attempt to be properly recognized by God, then what is the humility Jesus has in mind?
No doubt, the embarrassed diners at the Pharisee’s table who are unceremoniously reseated are asking the same question.
Jesus offers another window into humility by telling them a story about hosting a dinner party. He describes a much different dinner party than was typical in his day, much less ours. “Instead of inviting those who can invite you back, Jesus tells him to invite those who are different from his usual dinner guests” (Elizabeth Caldwell, see above). “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.”
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” So, the humble life is one that is not always looking for what is in our best interest, what is the best angle to take. “If we invite Frank and Mary, then maybe we’ll get an invitation to their exclusive party.” “If I tell the boss exactly what she wants to hear, maybe I’ll get that promotion.” When our good deeds are carefully calculated to pay us well-derived dividends then we are not in humility’s neighborhood and we certainly have not heard or experienced the gospel that Jesus shared at the Pharisee’s table. The message behind these two stories is that the Reign of God is and will always be filled with people who do not deserve to be there, including you and me, and rejoice at God’s inexplicable grace.
When I think about Christian humility, I mostly see faces. These faces have shown me what Jesus was saying, shown me what real humility looks like. I see the face of one saint in Atlanta who could not have children but who lived very modestly so that she could anonymously pay for over twenty poor children to attend college. I see the face of a saint in Alexandria who could not breathe without support of an oxygen tank but it did not slow him down a bit. He took that tank with him to visit those who were hospitalized without family. I see the face of a saint in Newport News who was bound to bed, but who sent hand-written notes to welcome visitors to church that Sunday, visitors this saint would never meet. I see the face of a saint in Wilmington, N.C., who had precious few resources but made sure that no child in that church who wanted to attend summer camp would be prevented to do so because the parents had no funds.
When I think of Christian humility, I see many faces, including a very long list of faces here at Cove. What each face shares in common is a deep gratitude for being included in the feast of God’s grace and a bold willingness to live lives of care for, compassion for, gratitude for others, without waiting for a payoff on the investment.
Beyond particular faces, perhaps the finest teacher in humility for me has been the church, from Sunday School teachers who try to teach gospel truth to bored and distracted young children like I was as a child, elders who spend three years in countless hours of church meetings and whose work is essential but rarely noticed and often unappreciated, from choir members who practice for hours and then sing on Sunday so that worship is rich and full, from mission workers who build schools in Haiti, irrigate fields so crops can grow in arid areas, who learn new languages so that others can hear the wisdom of Jesus in their own tongues.
It is not that church folk are always humble. Sometimes the need for public recognition gets the best of us and we end up in the same position as I found myself at my senior year assembly and as the re-seated guests found themselves at the Pharisee’s party. Whenever we get resentful of the recognition coming to others or really proud of our so-called “humble” service we are prime for a fall. But whenever our service in the name of Christ is service done in gratitude for God’s grace, in true thanks for the place God has set for us at the table, then we are not far from the magical, mystical world of humility.
The more we reach out to those who can give us nothing in return; the more we give time for efforts of love that few will ever understand or appreciate, the more we sacrifice preferred pursuits in the pursuit of Christian service, we may well find ourselves well-seated in the Reign of God. Or, as Anne Lamott’s puts in her own, unique way, “Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.”
A humble life will not earn us a place on anyone’s “Who’s Who” list, except the one kept by Jesus. In the end, I doubt there is a list that matters more.