Sermon: To Choose the Place of Honor

Thrones in Iolani Palace, Honolulu

September 1, 2019
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14:1, 7-14

by Eric Anderson

It seems like such straightforward good advice, doesn’t it? And it’s even Biblical, which should surprise us of Jesus, who rather liked to quote the Scriptures and was really good at it.

Proverbs 25 includes these words:

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’
than to be put lower in the presence of the noble.”

Jesus had simply adapted this ancient recommendation of what to do in the presence of royalty to a less rarified setting: the village with its own more restricted hierarchy.

It’s a funny thing, though.

Luke chose to use the word “parable” to describe what Jesus had to say about seeking a lower place than you might expect. That seems odd, because Jesus didn’t go on to tell a story. He reworked the old proverb from Proverbs to create a new proverb: a memorable piece of advice, but not a story.

About the only story element is the introduction, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet…” Why a wedding banquet particularly? Jesus, after all, had been invited for a sabbath day dinner hosted by the most important of the local teachers of faith and religion. He’d been invited as a well-known and well-respected if someone intriguing and controversial visiting teacher. Jesus, in fact, would not have had to worry about finding his place. As the guest of honor, he’d have been seated right next to his host in the very best seat in the room.

So he could have set his parable there instead of at a wedding. Why a wedding?

When Jesus told stories about wedding feasts, he told stories about the nature of the realm of God. He spoke of bridesmaids who needed extra oil to wait for the wedding to begin. He spoke of a frustrated monarch whose intended guests refused to attend, who then invited anyone and everyone.

He spun a new proverb from old silk to encourage humility among people of privilege and pride.

As Jeannine K. Brown writes at Working Preacher, “Humility was very rarely considered a virtue in Greco-Roman moral discourse. Yet, humility is to mark the followers of Jesus, according to so much of the New Testament witness.” No, humility wasn’t much of a virtue in the dominant cultures of the first century. Pride was the attribute that built and maintained empires. Pride won a family its wealth and its rank. Pride got you somewhere. Humility would leave you where you were, or see you sink like a stone.

Americans prefer pride to humility as well. We are, we’re told, the greatest country there has ever been. We have the best schools, the best medical care, the best leaders, the best governmental system, the best justice system, the best culture.

It’s a funny thing, though. To pick up just a few of these, we spend more per capita on medical care, yet we get poorer results than a number of countries comparable in technical achievement. According to Peterson-Kaiser research, we have more hospitalizations, see more premature deaths, and lose more time to illness.

We claim the best justice system, yet we see stunning differences in how people of different races fare when charged with a crime. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. In a report submitted to the United Nations, they wrote, “African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.”

It hurts too much to talk about what Americans do with guns today.

We claim the best leaders. That’s probably all I want to say about that.

Humility is not a great American value.

Can it be one of our values?

And can we distinguish humility from subservience?

There’s a challenge. Let’s face it: Humility has been a virtue required of some, and not of others. “Keep your place,” we’ve been told, as long as our place is one in which some other person gets to exert power of us. “Keep your place” is an element to the high incarceration rates of people of color in the US. “Keep your place” is a significant element in the pay gap between genders in America. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar that men do, according to Payscale. It turns out that racial bias plays a part here, too. White women earn 80 cents for every dollar that men do, while African-American women earn 74 cents.

That’s an enforced subservience, embedded in custom and culture, and right there for all to see.

What sets humility apart?

First, a humble person has to be just as aware of their strengths as their need for growth. Melissa Bane Sevier writes in her blog, “At God’s table, every place is the same. There is always enough to go around. There is always room for you. Be strong and be humble. They are not mutually exclusive.”

Let me say that again. Be strong and humble. They are not mutually exclusive.

Jesus brought his humility to the table. We believe he was God Incarnate, yet he never made this explicitly clear to any human being until after the resurrection helped them realize it for themselves. Yet he always brought the strengths of his wisdom, his courage, and his ocean-deep compassion. He was strong and he was humble.

Further, he bore witness to God’s intent for a new realm of God. It looks like a wedding feast with the humble in the places of honor and the proud learning humility. It looks like a nation where the privileged set aside their privilege and affirm the humanity of all their neighbors. It looks like a world in which we set aside what we believe we are entitled to and see that all people receive it – not just ourselves.

Debie Thomas writes at Journey with Jesus, “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us.  There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our Presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom.”

So let us come today to this table of the realm of God. Let us come knowing we have been invited – knowing that there are others invited who do not, will not come. Let us come knowing that there are some we might invite, and with whom we might share this feast.

Let us come most of all in the faith that this table, with its taste of bread and grape, is the merest taste of the love and compassion of Jesus. Let us come knowing that the realm of God is greater than our imagination – in that humble recognition of our limits, and in humble gratitude for our strengths for serving God’s purposes in the world: let us come to this table.

In that humility and in that strength, let us come to God’s table: and be renewed.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

To Choose the Place of Honor

Even though the text above has been revised to more closely approximate the sermon as preached, it must confessed: it’s only an approximation.

The image is of the seats of actual royalty: the thrones in Iolani Palace, home of the last Hawaiian monarchs. Photo by Eric Anderson

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on September 1, 2019

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