Justice, Kindness, and Humility
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay Summit Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2007
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1, 7-14
One of the most difficult things for a parent, I think, is dealing with a child who is being rejected by his or her peers. The fifth grade boy who comes home and says, “I don’t ever want to go to school any more.” They’re playing dodge ball in gym class and he’s always the last one chosen to be on a team—and the first one to be hit by a ball. “I’m no good,” he sobs. And we parents try to tell him that dodge ball isn’t all there is in the world, and he’s good at lots of other things … but none of that really helps.
Or the 13-year-old girl who comes home and slams doors and snarls at her parents, and it turns out that those girls she used to play Barbie with, those girls she was in Brownies with and whose soccer team she was on, they’ve now told her in no uncertain terms that she is no longer welcome to sit at their lunch table. And we parents try to tell her that she really is a wonderful person—what a great smile she has, and can’t she play the piano brilliantly … but it doesn’t really help.
There are hierarchies for kids in school. Many of us remember them with pain, for we were toward the bottom of those pecking orders. And maybe we sometimes remember them with guilt, because in striving to keep our own places in the sun, we know we were cruel to other kids.
As adults, the pecking orders are more subtle. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve internalized the “rules” to such an extent that we don’t even think to try to play on the team that’s likely to reject us or to sit at the table where we know we won’t be welcomed. We don’t want to be shamed. We don’t want to be humiliated.
Now, in this country we’re not entirely comfortable with this hierarchical view of society. After all, we believe that everyone is created equal, that all citizens have the chance to become president, blah blah blah. We know full well that this myth of equality is just that—a myth, an illusion—but we really don’t like talking about classes of people here.
And so this scripture from Luke, with its places at table and being raised up to places of honor and all that, well, it tends to strike us as not having to do with us. We scarcely ever go to banquets with name cards at our proper places anymore, unless it’s at someone’s wedding reception—and even a lot of those have buffets and people trying to eat standing up or balancing their plates on their knees if they can find a seat at all.
But in the culture of the time this was written, society was organized quite differently. In the first century Roman world there was not even a myth of equality. Sociologists call this an “honor society”—one of my professors talked about it in terms of a pyramid. At the top was Caesar, who had people who depended on him for their living—for positions, power, etc.—and who in turn gave him their allegiance—honor—as their patron. And each of these people then were patrons of people who depended on them and in return gave them honor … and those people were patrons for yet another level of society, and so on and so on, down to the lowliest of the slaves. So at a dinner party, one’s place at the table didn’t depend on the whim of the host but on a very strict hierarchy in society. To sit “above” someone who was actually on a societal level superior to yours was not just a social gaffe but a shameful act—something that would need to be remedied, immediately!
So Jesus says, “Take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” And the people there would have recognized his words because he was paraphrasing a couple of verses from Proverbs:
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
It is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles. (25:6-7)
Proverbs is part of the Wisdom Literature in the Bible, which consists of what we might call “Rules for Living.” And if we understand them as guidelines for dealing with our fellow human beings, these are actually sort of manipulative, aren’t they? You know, “Hey, notice me sitting down here amongst the nobodies when I clearly have more value! Show everyone how important I am by moving me up! And in the meantime make me look like someone who’s not all puffed up about how great I am.”
But Jesus is not talking just about the etiquette of dinner parties. He’s talking about the etiquette of the
In other words, in the
We see this theme of reversal—of turning the world’s expectations upside down—over and over again in the Bible. Hannah sings in 1 Samuel:
The bows of the warriors are broken,
but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
but those who were hungry hunger no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children,
but she who has had many sons pines away. (2:4-6, NIV)
And Mary sings in what we know as the Magnificat:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” God doesn’t abide by our notions of who’s first and who’s last.
And God expects us to let go of those notions as well.
At the end of this section of scripture, Jesus says this:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. (Luke 14:12-13)
Those folks we see as “not really as good as us”—the ones we’ve placed below us on our internal social ladders—Jesus is telling us to invite them to be part of our lives. But not in that goody-goody sense that makes it clear that we think we’re better than they are but we’re “Good Christians” and sharing our oh-so-much-more-worthwhile lives with them.
Inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” sometimes looks like that—kind of patronizing—in the church. You know … we’re the Christians reaching out to the pagans, the rich giving to the poor, the educated sharing our wisdom with the ignorant, the enlightened Mt. Airy-ans giving to the beleaguered North Philadelphians, the “superior” sharing with the “inferior.” And sometimes even when we have the best intentions in the world, our giving appears condescending to the people receiving it.
A young man I know was working on a mission trip in
“What do you want me to do? Kiss your butt?” the man responded.
It’s pretty hard to be on the receiving end when we perceive the giving to be a way of showing who’s “better.”
I struggled with this a few years ago. I was going through some really difficult financial problems, and a couple of friends offered to lend me money. I realized at that point that I had it in my head that those who give—whether it’s money or time or knowledge or whatever—that those who give are “superior” to those who receive. And it was hard to say “Thank you” and accept the money.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I think when we are asked to invite “the least of these” to our tables and into our lives, we are being called to a true humility. Not a humility that involves putting ourselves down, for after all, we are God’s beloved children, and, as the poster says, “God don’t make no junk!”
No, a true humility means letting go of seeing ourselves as the center of our world. A true humility means that instead of seeing ourselves as the most interesting (or most giving or most fun or even most wounded) person in the world, we open ourselves up to watch and listen for what makes other people interesting or giving or fun … or wounded or quirky or wise.
Our reading from Hebrews said that we are to hospitable—that some have through their open hospitality entertained angels without being aware of it.
When our children come to us with tales of being rejected by their peers, we’re furious. We talk about the dangers of bullying on the playground, and we rail against the menace of “mean girls” in middle school. We don’t want our children to be “least” in their social groups—we want them to be recognized and loved and accepted for the wonderful, quirky, fun angels they are. We want them to be invited to the table.
And that is what we are called to do—to welcome at our tables and in our lives all of God’s children, as peers. We need to get over that looking up and down the table to figure out who’s “better” and who’s “worse.” For the last shall be first and the first last. In God’s Kingdom, the world is turned upside down.
In God’s Kingdom, there are no “superior” and “inferior” people. In God’s Kingdom, it is God’s grace that counts, not our feeble efforts to make ourselves worthy. We may look around us and decide who the “good Christians” are and who the “slip-sliders” are, but we have to remember that our membership in God’s Kingdom isn’t a result of our efforts but of God’s grace. God doesn’t look at us and see people who deserve to be at the head of the table and people who deserve to be at the bottom. God’s point is that we all belong at the table.
And God wants us, God’s children, to help to bring about that Kingdom. Are you feeling like you perhaps belong a bit more than someone else? Reach out to that person to find out what wonderful qualities God has given him or her. Are you feeling like you don’t really belong? Remember that God created you—you are God’s beloved child.
There’s a story about the founder of the Salvation Army, who was too ill to attend a major conference. He sent a telegram, though, and when it was opened, I imagine people gathered round and really paid attention to what words of wisdom this beloved leader had to say. There was only one word—a word of grace and true humility—a word that said, “I am not the center of the universe.” The message read, “Others!”
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Reach out to others and be ready to entertain angels unaware.