The Humility Lesson

The readings for Sunday, August 28, 2016, Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

The substance of this Sunday’s Gospel reading is an instruction on humility, but the reading does not begin that way. Luke writes, “One Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler who was a member of the Pharisees.” In the Gospels a “ruler” is usually a member of the Great Council in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. This body was composed of seventy members, presided over by the current high priest. Membership in the Sanhedrin consisted first of aristocracy which was determined by wealth, tradition, and membership in families from whom high priests were appointed. Most or all of these belonged to the party of the Sadducees. Additional membership of the Sanhedrin consisted of learned scribes (lawyers skilled in the Torah — laws of Moses). Most or all of these were of the party of the Pharisees. This division between differing views of the Torah and different backgrounds could lead to stormy debates.

That Jesus dined at the home of such an important and learned man demonstrates how deeply he had become embedded in Jewish life even in high circles. To Luke’s introduction of Jesus’ presence at this dinner, he adds an ominous note, “They were watching him.”

What follows is omitted from our Gospel reading. It is difficult to imagine why the assemblers of the readings would omit what was obviously a test for Jesus’ attitude toward Sabbath activity. A man afflicted with edema (swelling brought on by fluid retention) was present. He was probably there as a plant in a scheme to test if Jesus was really the Sabbath breaker he was rumored to be. Jesus takes the initiative, and asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” No answer! He healed the man, then shamed his host and other guests, “Which of you having a son or an ox fall into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” No answer!

So why would the post Vatican assemblers of the lectionary omit this delightfully instructive episode and move on to Jesus’ rather barbed instruction on humility? A possibility: If there were at that time as many clergy clamoring, conniving, and climbing to get to the top of the ladder as Pope Francis has been denouncing in our time, the assemblers of the lectionary must have considered a lesson in humility to be primary. And so, on to Luke’s teaching of humility. Just as host and guests had been watching Jesus, he was also watching them. He noticed how the guests were choosing the places of honor at the table. He advises them as follows. When invited to a banquet, do not sit down in a place of honor. A more influential person may come into the banquet room. The host comes to one who had already chosen a place of honor and says, “Yield your place to this man.” Publicly shamed, the self-honored guest will move to the lowest place at the table. Instead, Jesus advises to take the lowest place. When the host comes in, he will say, “Friend, go up higher. Then you will be honored in the presence of all fellow guests.”

Even though the very human desire to be publicly honored by first choosing the lowest place at table seems to be at work here, Jesus does not reject even that human motivation. The real intention of Jesus and Luke would be to recognize our sinfulness before God and know that we belong in the lowest place. Paul also uses human motivation for self-abasement.  In Philippians 2:1-11, he cautions some squabbling members of the Christian Community to become servants of others rather than bosses. He notes the example of Jesus who, although he was God, lowered himself to be the slave of all. In response to supreme humility God exalted him above all creation. In other words, “If exaltation is what you want, imitate Jesus.”

Thus far we have Jesus’ lecturing his fellow guests. Next he turns to his host. The next time he throws a dinner or banquet, he should not invite friends, colleagues, family, wealthy people. That only gains a reciprocal invitation to their dinners. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the paralyzed, the blind.” The result: “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” The word “just” implies that a Christian’s outreach to the poor and the handicapped is a matter not of charity but of justice. We do not know if Jesus was again invited to this house, but humanly speaking it was unlikely.

There is nothing new about this instruction on humility. The newness of it consists in its presentation in a story. The Old Testament has similar teachings. Today’s first reading is one of many examples.”