Banquet of Humble Pie: Proper 17-C-07
In the Ancient Middle East there were many valuable commodities that were the vehicles of social commerce among the people. Land, gold, foodstuffs, wine, even salt (from which we get the word “salary”) were held and traded throughout the Roman Empire. Perhaps because over 90% of the Gross National Product was held and controlled by less than 10% of the population, there was another commodity that was worth more than these, and it was intangible. This commodity was honor.
Honor, the esteem held an individual or family assigned relative worth or value of a person in society. If you happened to see the HBO series, Rome, you know what I mean. Those who didn’t have honor sought it, through righteous action or living into a particular code, or seeking to have it conferred through recognition or action from those who had it. Those who had it held the social strata in balance by the way they doled out the honor they had. This happened through social inter changes, such as invitations and seating at social gatherings, like sporting events, coronations, and banquets.
Pliny the Younger, the poet and philosopher of Rome in the late first century, describes how this was enacted at a banquet he attended as honored guest: “Some very elegant dishes were served up to the host and a few more of the company; while those which were placed before the rest were cheap and paltry. He (the host) had apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wine; but you are not to suppose it as that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all. One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know that he measures out his friendship according to the degrees of quality); and the third for his own freed-men and mine.” (At least at our Galas the people seated closest to the lavatory eat and drink the same as those at the head table.)
It was to this sort of event that Jesus was invited by the leader of the Pharisees. He was invited to be the guest of honor, but don’t suppose that this was good old fashioned hospitality. He was invited as a set up, to be watched, to see how he’d act on the Sabbath. Would he keep kosher? Would he wash his hands as his disciples didn’t? Would he heal the man with dropsy that crashed the party, like he healed the woman with a disabling spirit last week? The host and guests have no intention of talking to Jesus about their Sabbath habits, mind you, but they are on the lookout for was to “diss” him for his. But Jesus had no qualms about talking to them about their ego driven obsessions. Invited to be watched, he becomes the observer, and noticing their scramble for places of honor, he tells guest and hosts two parables:
“When you are invited to a dinner don’t take the place of honor in case someone more important than you comes along and you get bumped. Rather, sit in the lowest place, so that your host may invite you higher and you’ll get singled out for honor by everyone else.” “And Mr. Host, when you give a banquet don’t invite your business associates, friends, and neighbors to your party, so they can in turn invite you, and each will get repaid. Rather, invite those who can’t contribute to your honor-stash, the poor, the lame, the outcast, the lost.
Now, Jesus does sound a little bit like Miss Manners here, but in spite of the fact their might be some good nuggets of advice in these remarks, we all know that he is not really talking about table etiquette. As is usually the case when he teaches, he is speaking about the Kingdom of God and what the reign of God implies. He is taking opportunity to point out the disparity between the manner in which the “honored” guests live their lives and God’s vision for a society in which all are on equal footing because all are children of God.
John Shea, the Biblical Scholar in the Wisdom tradition has pointed out that the way Jesus does this is very skillful. He challenges the host’s and guests’ jockeying for position in an indirect, comic way. He suggests a strategy that is sincere, but outrageous. At first glance it promotes the exact opposite of what they desire. Only someone monolithically hooked on honor would entertain it. And, if they did entertain it, even for a moment, it would surface their single-minded pursuit of esteem. In contemporary parlance, they would be “busted”. In ancient formulas, they would come to know themselves, to have self-reflective knowledge about what drives them. . . . After each of these suggestions, Jesus might have added “Got ya!”. Like the good spiritual director he is, what he suggests is designed to catch his hearers in their own thinking, to make visible to them the underlying motivations of thinking and action. If they gravitate to Jesus’ off the wall strategy, even for a moment, the humor of their ambitions and the pathetic deceits they are capable of may break through to them. Laughing at ourselves is more than therapeutic, he adds, it is the first step toward conversion.
Shea also points out that the point behind these sayings can be explored more deeply by doing some extending, by letting our active imaginations explore what might happen if his directions were followed.
--The scheming guest does find the lowest place, and the host, who attended the best boarding school for boys where the studied put down was the best means of survival, sees the honor hungry guest lowly waiting for a higher calling, and bends over and whispers “I see you know your place.”
--Or, the scheming guest is ignored by the host and forced to fraternize at the bottom. He lets go of social ambitions and actually enjoys himself. At the next dinner he takes the lowest place because he likes the company better…the food might not be as good, but the jokes are funnier, the laugher easier, the stories wilder. The host invites him up, but he declines because he’s having too much fun.
--Or the host decides to risk and invite the outcast group, and finds that he actually likes them. They are real people, and his desire to be part of the “resurrected righteous” lessons. Hell being that place where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, acts alike.
--Or the host invites the outcasts, goes to bed that night and dies, awakens in heaven only to find that the resurrected righteous are not the social and religious elite of the earthly days, but the outcasts he has come to enjoy. The banquet he had on earth is the same banquet going on in heaven.
Jesus hope is that the so called righteous will awaken to the fact they have fallen under the grasp of the most serious of human sin, the sin of pride. Pride and its kissing cousin, vainglory, are so serious because they are distortions of who we humans really are. They remove God from the equation, make us think that we are centers of our own universes, masters of our own creations. Both inflate our self-importance, our self-sufficiency, our calling in the created order. They make us like the man of whom a friend remarked, “The last time I saw him he was walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.”
The remedy for Pride and Vainglory is, as the monastics have taught, humility. The word humility comes from the word “humus” or earth. It is the earth that God initially took and breathed life into when the first human being was created. It is the earth to which we all day will return. To be humble, then, is above all to know yourself. To know where you come from and where you are going. To live humbly is to be guided by that in all that you do. T.S. Eliot once said: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important”. That is, half the harm is due to people who will not live with humility.
In Western Culture the concept of honor doesn’t have the same weight or importance as it does in Eastern Cultures, where atrocities like honor killings still happen. Our industrial society values things like productivity, status, wealth, class, the toys we acquire much more. But the underlying illness is the same, and that is pride, whose antidote is humility. Thomas a Kempis wisely taught, “The way to acquire such humility is to fix the following maxim in your mind: ‘You are worth what you are worth in the eyes of God.’ Remember and walk humbly with your God.