One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left. “When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)
Jesus was invited to Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee; there were lots of important people there and they were all watching Jesus to see what he would do. The Pharisees were gathering information that would be used later in Jesus’ trial in Jerusalem.
At these dinners, the tables were usually arranged in levels so that the most important people were at the elevated tables where they could see and be seen. When Jesus noticed that the invited guests were jockeying for the ‘best’ seats, he used a parable to speak about the quality of humility. Those people trying to get the best seats felt they deserved it because of their position or wanted to be seen as important even if they were not. Jesus’ warning to them was to consider the embarrassment if the host had intended those seats for others and had to ask them to move to a lower level.
Can you imagine how you would feel if you were seated where everyone could see you and then had to move to a lesser table? Your ego would be deflated and you would certainly lose face in the eyes of the other guests.
But those who chose to sit in a lesser seat would not have to be moved, or may even have been invited to sit at a higher table.
This parable speaks to the humility of God’s children. In ancient times, those seated at the lower tables were considered servants to the upper tables. So, those who chose to sit there recognized that although they may have gifts and talents that warranted their sitting in a special place, they were humble enough to realize that these gifts and talents brought them no special treatment. They knew that service, especially service to God, was far more important than prestige.
Jesus also gave a warning to the host that he should not invite only his friends or people who would be obligated to return the invitation, but ask those who did not have the means to invite him back in return. By including those who were poor, crippled, lame and blind, the host would be fulfilling Jesus’ reminder that ‘what you do for the least of these, you do to me’.
Let’s look at what makes people think they are better than others: pride. Pride is the attitude that says, “‘I’ am the center of the universe.” As Jesus observed the maneuvering of those at the meal, He detected the poison of pride in their lives. Pride wasn’t just a problem back then, it’s a problem today. Let me mention two things that make pride such a problem.
It’s hard to recognize it in ourselves.
Someone once said pride is the only disease that makes everyone sick except the one who has it. Pride can also be called vanity. We can see pride and vanity in others, but we are usually blind to it in our own lives. We aren’t even aware it’s there until there it rears its ugly head. Pride is hard to see in ourselves, but we can easily see it in others. If we think we are not prideful, we are lying to ourselves.
We all need a few slices of humble pie.
The term “humble pie’ is interesting. Back in medieval England, the nobility were able to eat the good cuts of meat from a deer, but the poorer people had to eat a meat pie filled with the less desirable cuts of meat: the heart, liver and intestines. These parts of a deer were called “umbles.” A nobleman never stooped to eat umble pie, and if he was served umble pie, it was a humiliating experience. So to eat “umble pie” became synonymous with being humiliated. That’s why some people in England still pronounce humble as “umble.” It’s much like our American phrase “to eat crow.”
The Meaning of Humility
According to the dictionary, humility is not being proud or haughty; not being arrogant or assertive; but rather having a spirit of deference or submission. Humility is a realistic estimation of one’s self; it is not having a poor self-image of thinking you are a worthless wimp. It’s simply having an honest evaluation of who you are.
True humility is revealed by how I treat others
Humility is not some kind of badge we wear. The only way to reveal our humility is if we treat others more highly than yourself. We respect and honor others more than we think of ourselves as more important than another, the center of the universe.
Jesus humbled Himself to become one of us–a human being; Jesus, the very Son of God humbled Himself on the cross for all of us. He is THE example of being humble. And we should follow his example.
Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH 1 September 2013