A Pharisee invites Jesus to a banquet on the Sabbath. It was probably a Hellenistic style meal designed so people could gather to hear teachings or words of wisdom. Just before this banquet, Jesus had called Herod a fox and noted that all legitimate prophets must die in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders were watching Jesus to see what he would do next. The passage we didn’t read tells how a man with dropsy approached Jesus and was healed after Jesus asked the Pharisees if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. They wouldn’t answer him and Jesus asked them if they would rescue a valuable animal that fell in a pit on the sabbath and they still wouldn’t answer. Jesus was definitely being observed.
As Luke depicts this meal, he includes some things Jesus said. The parable about eating at a feast. Jesus is speaking of humility. Jesus is now speaking of a Palestinian feast. People were placed in groups of three with the highest guests of honor in the center of the room. The other groups would be arranged around them in concentric circles according to rank. The closer to the center, the more important you were. Then the most prestigious people would often arrive fashionably late. People are comfortable, talking and eating and someone arrives who must be placed in the center of the room. Even if the spaces have been left empty for them, they have to walk through the others to get to their seats. Depending on the size of the room and the number of guests, this could cause quite a commotion. Everyone in the room would not only notice the deference given to this guest but they would also notice who had to move to make space for them. Jesus acknowledges the human ego by suggesting we take the lowest seat with the hope we will be asked to move to the seat of honor.
Jesus is holding out a kernel of truth about the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, we act in humility rather than pride. Humility is not a passive virtue. It takes action to maintain humility-Jesus didn’t wash one disciple’s feet, he washed the feet of all 12.
Jesus has more to say so he moves on to whom should be invited to a banquet. Not only can we be self-seeking in where we sit when we are invited somewhere, but we can be self-seeking when we invite people to our homes. Most of us expect a return invitation. Jesus says it is better to invite those who cannot return the favor than it is to invite family or friends. In God’s Kingdom, all are invited to the messianic feast. God doesn’t care about our failings or if we are poor or sick or what language we speak, the One is open to all. At the temple of Jesus’ time, the lame and the blind and women were not allowed entry. Jesus recommends that we show the same mercy that God does in accepting us as part of the One. We must offer good things to people who cannot return the favor any more than we can repay God for what we have received.
Aside from all that I owe God, I was trying to think of a time when I received something that the giver didn’t expect something in return. When Jim and I were students at Purdue, we had very little money. Our son was a baby and we were both working part-time and attending school. My parents helped us by buying diapers and clothes for our son and they also would bring frozen vegies to stock our tiny freezer compartment. We got to a point that we couldn’t pay for all our needs so I went to the welfare office for help. I applied for and received food stamps. As I filled out the form and waited to speak to the caseworker, I watched the people coming and going. It took some humility for me to go to the welfare office because no one in either of our families had ever applied for or received welfare. I knew once one of us finished school, we would have good jobs and enter the middle class. It was an eye opener for me as I watched women in waitress uniforms and men in work clothes come in for their benefits. And I wondered if any of them would ever have decent enough pay to be able to pay all their expenses on their own.
Being fresh at the welfare experience, I didn’t know that college students had to reapply each school term to verify the need for food stamps. In January, I went in with my $21 to buy my food stamps for the month and the caseworker told me my card had expired. I was desperate because that was all the money I had for food that month and it wasn’t enough. I got an appointment to sign up for food stamps again and she sent me to a church food pantry. The worker made sure I left with all I needed, expecting nothing in return. This is why I support food banks. I was treated with respect by the caseworker and the food bank volunteer.
This congregation often acts in the service of others when there is no apparent reward. The monthly meals for Chaplains on the Harbor. Historically: clergy visits at the local nursing home, jail church services, Christmas presents for children of the incarcerated, and the church school that we operated for many years.
Jesus is asking us to do good because we love God. He is asking us to do good because we can look at others as God does, with love. The good we are asked to do is be merciful without any regard for the return we might receive. Being humble is hard work and it is something with which I struggle. Yet, all that I am I owe to the One. Any good virtues I have developed or increased from my own nature are only with the help of the One. Any talents I have are gifts from the One.
Decades ago during a church service, I was praying that I could be more humble. After the service we went downstairs for an adult ed class. I was known as the oddball who carried her Bible to church. I liked reading along with the lectors and the priest in my own Bible and I would often make notes. During the class, the priest wanted to look up a reference and no Bible was available so he asked for mine. He looked up the reference but to my mortification he held up my Bible for the people to see. There were all my under-linings and notes from the age of nine forward. I sat there and asked God, “This is how you help me with humility?” If I have studied the Bible more than the average person, it is probably that I have needed more guidance.
I think acting in humility means we don’t have to lower ourselves but we need to remember we are no higher than others. If we can treat all with respect, we can act in humility. Being humble doesn’t mean we have to give up our own rights but it means we need to consider the rights of others in our actions. We can never repay God for all that we have received but we can advance the kingdom by acting in humility in our dealings with others and perhaps by not elbowing our way to the center of the room.