Humility and Hospitality
1On 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. …
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and 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. 10But 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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 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 neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
My text this morning is written in Luke 14:11:
11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Let us first provide some context for our Gospel reading: We are taken to a time when Jesus visited the home of a Pharisee and this echoes a similar event as recorded in 7:36-50. Eating together was awkward in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day because their oral traditions were full of rules and regulations and indeed restrictions about how one ought to eat, when one ought to eat and what was permissible to eat. They also contained rules about with whom one could eat! Jesus’ earlier meal had erupted into a serious conflict because Jesus had allowed a sinful woman to anoint his feet. This meal was even more fraught with difficulties as it took place on the Sabbath. We can almost expect what will happen, because a man in terrible need comes to Jesus – suffering from dropsy – and true to form, Jesus cannot leave a person in need like this and so he heals him and sends the man away. He knows what the people are thinking and so he gives an explanation about how the law caters for dealing with animals in distress on the Sabbath which exposes the folly of their legalistic objections and verse 6 concludes: “And they could not reply to this.”
This episode revealed something else as well. Some of the people were forcing their way to important places at the meal. Jesus gives them sound practical advice that it avoids embarrassment when one rather assumes a lowly place and waits to be invited to a more important position. But there is an important spiritual parallel which Jesus makes clear in verse 11: “11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Some of the Pharisees were assuming that they had special places in the presence of God because of their legalistic observances and their rigid adherence to the letter of the Law. They believed they were better than others because they followed their ways – obviously not God’s ways – which Jesus was showing them - very strictly. A commentator writes:
Jesus recommends a different agenda: Seek to become a friend of God and trust God to properly honour God’s friends.”
This leads Jesus into his second parable which has as the theme: If you want to be ‘friends with God, extend hospitality to the marginalised. In the ancient world, reciprocity was strictly followed whereby one only extended hospitality to those who were able to return the hospitality. Jesus rejects this norm and gives a different imperative and demands rather that his followers give hospitality to those who cannot repay it – as he makes clear in verses 12 and 13. John Wesley inquires:
“… is it not implied herein, that we should be sparing in entertaining those that need it not, in order to assist those that do need, with all that is saved from those needless entertainments?”
We see therefore that the two parables in our reading are part of Jesus’ ongoing dialogue with the religious leaders of his day. One of the issues Jesus dealt with in our previous lesson is the way in which the Pharisees would happily enter into sophisticated intellectual debate, at the expense of dealing with the real, practical need of a person experiencing some distress. Jesus then made the vital point that ‘… the law of mercy may take precedence over the Sabbath law …’
Where our reading begins, Jesus is also talking about precedence, but in a different way, and deals with positions of importance at table. Caird writes: “As in social etiquette, so in the spiritual realm, recognition eludes those who demand it and accrues to those who think more highly of others than of themselves.”
If a distinguished person arrived early at a feast and took pride of place and if a more distinguished person arrived later and the first guest had to be told to move, this would be embarrassing. However, if the first person chose a more lowly position, he would be honoured to be invited to a more distinguished place ‘… his humility will have gained him all the more honour …’
Humility is always the sign of truly great people. Thomas Hardy is believed to have submitted some of his most brilliant poetry under a pseudonym together with a stamped self-addressed envelope, never assuming that he had any right to have his work published. I will always remember my experiences of Dom Henry Wansborough – translator of the New Jerusalem Bible into English - but working with me just as ‘Father Henry’ for months, until I found out by accident that he was Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford!
Barclay suggests that we can retain our humility in a number of ways. Firstly, we can do this by remembering the facts. However much we know, we still know little compared with the sum total of knowledge. However much we have achieved, we have still achieved very little in the end. However important we may feel we have become, this is not permanent, and life will continue well enough without us. Secondly, we can do this by comparing ourselves with perfection. “It is when we see or hear the expert that we realise how poor our own performance is.” As I get older, I realise more and more that there are others who are far better teachers and preachers than I am. Thirdly, when we compare the way we live our lives with the life of Jesus ‘… pride will die and self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up.”
At a conference I attended in Oxford one Easter, I was privileged to hear Professors Keith Ward and Richard Pring, probably two of the best academics in their fields: Ward in theology and philosophy and Pring in Education. Their lectures were enthralling and filled with insight and sparked off a number of important questions. I felt reluctant to ask any, realising that I was an insignificant teacher in the presence of giants. But all questions, including mine (when I eventually plucked up the courage to ask them) were given such dignity and weight – in all sincerity – that I was made to feel greatly affirmed and blessed in the process. Caird gives an apt description that applies so obviously to people like Ward and Pring: “True dignity, and true honour, whether conferred by man or God, is always unexpected.”
I remember when I was a Chaplain in Oxford – where I was teaching the sons and daughters of the ‘great and the good’ - where, in addition to having to work out for myself that the Jeremy Irons in front of me was the actor, I only discovered after I left, that some of the people I met there were of the greatest scholars in their fields. In contrast I will never forget the one year 08 parent asking me: “Mr Owen, what is your view on the Graff-Wellhousen Hypothesis on the authorship of the Pentateuch?” clearly trying to show me how clever he was, because it had nothing to do with anything that his son was being taught. His whole demeanour was one of arrogance and he continued, probing with other questions, testing my knowledge. I was not impressed at all.
Jesus teaches here that true humility is what matters, as this enables a person to grow and develop as a person. The Pharisees were very good at the appearance of humility. Humility is often abused by people who want to appear to be humble in order to gain something for themselves. But humility should not be difficult at all. Whatever we think we know we should realise that in comparison with the sum total of knowledge, we know very little; however much we have achieved, it is very little in the general scheme of things.
Christian humility comes from comparing ourselves with Jesus, realising our own imperfection, understanding and limitations. We need to acknowledge that our gifts and strengths come from God, and we need to use them as Christ directs us. ‘Humility is not self-degradation; it is a realistic assessment and commitment to serve.’
The Pharisees were missing out on a great deal through their self-importance. There was so much more that they could have achieved as human beings.
In the second parable, Jesus touches a nerve. We all like to spend time with good, special, accomplished people. While it is natural that people like to spend time with those who are like them and ‘better’ than them and agree with them, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had (as Caird explains) ‘… elevated this tendency into a spiritual principle, refusing all social contact with those who did not share their standards of piety …’ Jesus points out that to do this is to miss the heavenly blessedness that comes to those who show hospitality and kindness where there is no possibility of recompense. It would appear that Jesus is challenging the Pharisees to become ‘disinterested’.
Disinterested is an interesting word. In today’s world it is all too easy to confuse it with uninterested or not interested. In fact it means impartiality or lack of interest in the sense that one does not wish or even hope to gain from something. As the Concise Oxford Dictionary explains: “… not influenced by considerations of personal advantage …”
But Caird adds: “It may seem strange that Jesus should have spoken of reward for disinterested goodness, for one cannot be unselfish with an eye to heavenly gain; yet the reward is real.”
The loving service of the helpless and those in need, which Jesus did so well, is the essence of what life ought to be like in the Kingdom of God, and – as Caird concludes “… such a life will enjoy the perfection of it in heaven …”
Jesus makes the point clearly. His hosts had invited all the important people – or people from whom they could receive some benefit. Jesus turned their philosophy on its head stating that they should rather invite those who can never return the compliment. Jesus is saying that it is in service of others that one achieves fulfilment.
This parable speaks to all generations. It forces us to ask a number of important questions about why we give to others or why we are generous. Some of us give out of a sense of duty – because we feel that we have to. Others give because they hope to receive in return. These people see their giving as a form of investment. It is possible to give to others in order to make us feel superior. In this case, it is better rather not to give at all, because a patronising attitude is most hurtful.
The best sort of giving is when the person doing the giving does not know who they are giving to and the person receiving does not know who the giver was. It is even better when a person gives because they cannot help it. William Barclay concludes:
The law of the kingdom is this – that if a man gives to gain reward he will receive no reward; but if a man gives with no thought of reward his reward is certain. The only real giving is that which is the uncontrollable outflow of love.
As Jesus said:
11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Amen.