Revd Dr Colin Dundon
Sunday 28 August 2016— Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14.1, 7-14
When I suggested to some of my colleagues that I would preach on the Gospel this week and thus mention humility there several reactions. Rude people that they are, the first reaction was a loud guffaw followed by sniggers all round. Another was the ironic comment "Well, at least you should able to give an 'objective' account".
In this chapter of Luke Jesus, as he travels to Jerusalem, often seems is either going to a meal, attending a meal or coming from a meal. Jesus, however, was not always the polite guest and at this meal he provoked this powerful leading light among the Pharisees with a healing on the Sabbath (1-6).
The micro setting is this house in which Jesus was under hostile observation. He has been invited on the Sabbath by a significant figure in the synagogue. He heals a man with something called dropsy which has many possibilities for identification one of which might be congestive heart disease. This is a highly restricted invitation list so the man is not an invitee but someone who has wandered in off the street, something that could happen in the ancient world.
Jesus asks the guests a provocative question "Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not (3)?" The guests decline to respond. This is important because the reason these people (men) are meeting for the meal is to discuss Torah and piety. It was a Hellenistic model of a meal and philosophical discussion, except that pious Jews used it for Torah, discussing the way of the law. Thus Jesus' question is not rude but it is provocative. He put the same question to the synagogue ruler in the passage we read last week (13.10-17), healing and liberating the bent over woman. But in no way did his hearers want to engage this radical conversation.
We saw in that story that Jesus thought God's liberation should be celebrated especially on the Sabbath (the sign of liberation, salvation or rest) both in the synagogue and at home. And in this healing he uses the same formula as he used for the woman; he heals and he liberates. (NRSV has "sent him away' thus disguising the connection). He frees the woman and he frees the man.
The tables turned
After performing the healing Jesus proceeds to instruct his hostile host and the guests in what it means to be free in the kingdom (7-14) and in two parables he engages his hosts and the guests in further debate.
I have given and attended a lot of dinner parties, birthday parties in my time and I have seen some of them go pear shaped like you couldn't imagine. I remember one 40th descend into chaos when someone called one of the young women there Jezebel for all the guests to hear. I remember it well because the 40th was my brother-in-law's and Jezebel was my oldest daughter, a woman renowned for her intellectual and debating skills and her tenacity. That party went from bad to worse.
This party is going from bad to worse.
In this world of Jesus humility was not a prime virtue. That has come into the West through Christianity. In Jesus day people loved honour. Honour underpinned the received ethical code and was taken over into Hellenistic Judaism. Humility appears nowhere in any lists of what was considered to be rules for the good life. Aristotle once described the humble man thus,
People are also calm towards those who humble themselves towards them and do not contradict them; for they seem to admit to being inferiors and inferiors are afraid, and no-one who is afraid belittles. (p.89)
Aristotle goes on to say that humble people have the about the same status as dogs. On such a view a whole ethic and social structure was built.
Choosing the best seats
Meals were places of maneuvering and reading your social position: on the top table, Grange and, on the bottom, chateau cardboard or six packs (7-11). Meals were high stakes games as the sharing of food was a social barometer as to status. Where am I sitting? Who am I eating with? Being asked to move from a position of honour which we have assumed for ourselves would bring untold shame. Self-exaltation has its pitfalls. It is better to be invited up to honour by being called friend (mate), an intimate term in that social world.
Jesus might be understood as saying no more than play the social game smarter and do not be buffoons who set themselves up for embarrassment. But there is something more and that is found in verse 11; for this what God values (see Elizabeth 1.7, 24-26; Mary 1.47-48 and also Nazareth 4.18-19).
He is trying to free them and his disciples from the necessity of succeeding in our cultures' contests of power and esteem. God delights in us and that is all the esteem and status we need. The core of humility is not self-deprecation but who it is who defines us; is it the conventions of status and power of our society that is, defined and watched over by our peers (they define us), or is it God's liberating love that defines us?
Be careful who you invite
Humility then extends to hospitality (12-14); the second parable. What Jesus says to the Pharisee is remarkable. Give honour to the dishonoured: Give honour to those who cannot give you honour. Jesus overturns all standards of reciprocity in the ancient world. Those who are too poor, too ill, too disabled to repay should be given your honour.
Orthodox social conventions had as their consequences the exclusion of the poor. Hospitality was for a self-serving agenda; to secure positions of dominance and power in their communities and insulate them from the weak.
Jesus abandons insider-outsider distinctions and the ethics of patronage and reciprocity. He lays out God's way of giving of gifts and hospitality without expecting anything in return. Selfless generosity is the life of the kingdom. Hospitality is a defining mark of the faith because it is a defining mark of God's character;
"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6.36).
God's hospitality opens up life; it opens up the resurrection life of beauty and hospitality beyond imagining. The resurrection of the righteous was agreed by both Pharisee and Jesus but Jesus view of righteousness is different; it is not about self-righteousness or status but belongs to those who have put things to rights for the poor and dispossessed. The right is the overturning, in one's own behaviour, and our social collective behaviour as the people of God, of a social order that excludes the lowly and weak.
Back to where we started
In his little book Humilitas John Dickson defines humility as:
"… the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use you influence for the good of others before yourself."
Put even more simply a humble person is someone who is marked by
"a willingness to hold power in the service of others"
These definitions capture the essence of what Jesus is saying. They lay bare pretensions to humility by some of the great and not so great. I watched Rupert Murdoch testifying before the parliamentary committee examining The News of the World scandal in the UK. He stated that he was humbled at being there. His misuse of words is enlightening. Humiliated he may have been, but humble no, which is what he said he was.
Jesus wanted his hearers to find freedom and creativity in humility. He wanted them to abandon their social credentials for liberation. Humility is not humiliation, self or otherwise. It is willing choice, a choice of dignity for the common good.
Humility is not about private self-deprecation - banishing proud thoughts or refusing to speak or even use your achievements. At the most that may be modesty. That is what we Australians mean when we say an athlete is humble. We mean that they are modest, maybe self-deprecating which we love.
Modesty is a good thing and we need to practice it. But it essentially centres on the self and its improvement. Paul reminds us
"…not to think of yourself more highly than you ought, but to think with sober judgment…"
On the other hand humility follows modesty and is the willing choice to redirect your powers whether physical, intellectual, financial, creative or structural for the sake of others, the common good. Humility is an active pursuit not of personal betterment but the betterment of all.
Then I am free.
Free at last. I am free at last. Well known words, powerful words so little experienced by disciples. That is why Luke's story continues to speak. We simply do not know how to be free, at last.
We find freedom in humility; we find creativity in humility for only then we can see and know things we never imagined existed. Then we are free to see God at work for God is humble. The cross is the shape of humility. And the cruciform life is our freedom.