Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Humility is a much undervalued and misunderstood virtue in a culture like ours that places a high premium on assertiveness. Attorney, consultant and author, Susan Cain has observed:
“We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal-the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual-the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.” Cain, Susan, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, (c. 2012 by Susan Cain, published by Crown Publishers), p. 4.
Contrary to the proverbial wisdom expressed in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, conventional wisdom would say that if you are fortunate enough to get face time with the king, you need to make the most of it. Put yourself forward. Show the monarch that you are knowledgeable, confident and eager to get ahead. Make a positive impression that will be hard to forget. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, you say?!? Hogwash! You don’t get to be Secretary of State by keeping a low profile. Humility never got anybody anything except the jobs nobody else wants.
Conventional wisdom, however, fails to comprehend the wisdom of humility. Being humble has nothing to do with shyness, introversion or cowardice. Humility is a virtue shaped by faithfulness to Jesus. It begins with contentment. Humble people are not looking for fulfillment in the next job, the next marriage or the next church. They recognize the place where they are as the place God has called them to be. They are thankful for the day to which they wake up with all of its opportunities and surprises rather than longing for better days ahead. They use their gifts and talents creatively in the work they have to do rather than pining for a better job where they can showcase their abilities. Humble people don’t concern themselves much with results. As long as she puts her best effort into preparing a solid sermon, a humble pastor does not care that only half a dozen came to church to hear it. A humble baseball player does not care what position he plays or even if he doesn’t get played at all. He is content as long as his presence supports his team. A humble worker does not care that she never got proper credit for her helpful ideas. In fact, she has probably forgotten that they were her ideas. The humble have no sense of entitlement to praise, recognition or reward. The satisfaction of having contributed their all is enough reward for them. If they are in fact entitled to more, they will receive it at “the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:14. In sum, humble people recognize that the world, the church and their lives are all God’s project and that God will “bring them to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6.
Humility should not be confused with weakness. Rosa Parks was considered a humble woman by all who knew her, but she knew how to take a stand (or a seat rather). Most often, though, humble people are not found on the front lines of conflict. I think that is because they have learned that there are better ways than head on confrontation to diffuse aggression and achieve justice. They don’t draw lines of demarcation between “right” and “wrong.” They don’t measure life in terms of “wins” and “losses.” Humble people are self critical. They never assume that theirs is the “right” side of any conflict. They understand that behind the most irrational and hate-filled opinion is a complex individual with a unique story of hope, fear, pain and loss. They believe that they can get much closer to reconciliation and peace through listening and understanding than by arguing. They always assume that there is something of value to be learned from everyone they encounter, however hostile, ignorant or unreasonable they might appear. Humble people are strong enough to resist the temptation to “fix” people and their wrongheaded notions. They understand that only the Holy Spirit can work the miracle of conversion and they are patient enough to give the Spirit all the time necessary to accomplish that miracle.
In case you are wondering whether such people actually exist, I can assure you they do. I have had the pleasure of meeting several of them. I will not identify them because that is the last thing they would want me to do. And no, I am not yet one of them. But I hope to be someday. I say that because humble people are the happiest, most fulfilled and joyful folks I know.
The Book of Proverbs is a compilation of poetic exhortations and pithy sayings couched in Hebrew parallelism. Though attributed in its entirety to King Solomon by tradition and by the opening verse (Proverbs 1:1), material within the text is attributed to at least two other authors. See Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1. Though it is certain that the book reached its final form in the period after the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century, the material upon which the author/editors drew might well be ancient indeed. I have previously expressed the view that some of these sayings might indeed date back to the time of Solomon. Nevertheless, as one would expect, they also speak to the realities of Jewish life under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Though life under foreign domination was no doubt difficult on the whole, there were always opportunities in the imperial bureaucracy for bright young Jewish boys like Daniel and attractive Jewish women like Esther. These opportunities were fraught with danger, however. Monarchs are fickle and prone to paranoia and cruelty. A little success leads to advancement. Too much success breeds suspicion, distrust and fear on the part of the king, as David learned. Success within the king’s court also invites jealousy and intrigue from those passed over for promotion. Keeping a low profile is, therefore, reasonably good advice for a young person desiring a long career and a secure retirement within the royal court.
A few words about proverbial wisdom are in order. Because Israel believed that “the earth is the Lord’s,” she also believed that it was governed by moral principles clearly set forth in Torah, but also evident in the realm of nature and human relationships. This strain of wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures has often been labeled “humanistic.” The label is inaccurate and misleading, however. While Israel believed the world to be intelligible, she clearly did not believe that anything like “human reason” could arrive at an understanding of God and creation independently. Whether understanding came from observation of the natural world or through meditation on the scriptures, the ultimate source of all knowledge is God’s revelation. It is not surprising, then, that Israel saw no dichotomy between “reason” on the one hand and “revelation” on the other.
Proverbial wisdom has its limits. “Waste not, want not” was one of my mother’s favorite proverbs. That maxim proves true often enough that we teach our children the value of thrift, careful planning and the avoidance of waste. Yet we all know that people sometimes lose everything and come to abject poverty in spite of a lifetime of careful planning and responsible spending. The universe does not run like a Swiss watch dispensing appropriate rewards for wise behavior and punishment for foolishness. We cannot assume that poverty is the fruit of foolish financial management or laziness anymore than we can attribute sickness to divine punishment for sin (as Job’s three friends had to learn). It is therefore best to view proverbs as portholes that give us unique perspectives on the world. Each proverb provides an enlightening, but limited view of life that is far from the full picture. It is one perspective. There are others.
For perspectives different from those set forth in Proverbs, one need not look any further than the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon. For further background on this unique book, see my post of Sunday August 4th. Suffice to say for our purposes that the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes fails to find much of any moral order in human existence concluding at last that “all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. This gloomy outlook is poles apart from the enthusiastic testimony of Proverbs to God’s wisdom shining through every crack and crevasse of creation. Yet for a young father trapped in a refugee camp helplessly watching his family starve to death, the world probably looks exactly like the cruel and heartless place the “teacher” says it is. It all depends on which porthole you happen to be looking through and the scriptures give us many.
Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. There is some truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.
But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, this same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Vs 7. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.
It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though some scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. As noted above, I believe that the wisdom material may well have roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies. Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The formal similarities between the two psalms are striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off half strophes. They share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion.
This reading brings into sharp focus exactly what the letter to the Hebrews is all about. The writer begins with an admonition for the believers to love one another and then goes on to flesh out exactly what that means. Sisterly/brotherly love means sharing the imprisonment and torture of fellow disciples. Despite the delusional ravings of some on the far (very far) religious right who imagine that the government is waging a “war against Christianity,” I maintain that we in this country have absolutely no experience or any concept of what persecution really means. And lest you imagine that persecution belongs only to the ancient past, be advised that in the last week more than sixty churches in Egypt have been attacked and vandalized. Washington Post, August 14, 2013. This is not the only place in the world where simply confessing Jesus can get you killed. So what does this scripture have to say to us? In what way do we “remember those who are in prison…and those who are being tortured”? Paul teaches us that the church is Christ’s Body and that when one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it. I Corinthians 12:26. What is wrong with our nerve endings that we are not feeling sufficiently the pain of our sisters and brothers in Egypt?
The writer also calls upon this community to practice hospitality-a core biblical value deeply held throughout the scriptures. The reference to entertaining angels unawares goes back to Abraham’s encounter with the Lord and his angels in Genesis 18. In an age before Holiday Inn where lodging was scarce and the roads vulnerable to banditry, safe travel often depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This was certainly the case in the Bronze Age when the patriarchs lived and probably for much of the First Century world as well. When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming of the God’s reign, they were sent out with no provisions and instructed to rely upon the hospitality of the towns to which they preached. Mark 6:7-13. This seems to have been the model for early Christian mission. While the admonition to practice hospitality obviously included traveling missionaries, I believe the allusion to anonymous angels suggests that the command applied more broadly to traveling strangers as well. In the gospel lesson, Jesus will push the parameters of hospitality to the limit.
Like so many other episodes in the gospel of Luke, this story takes place at a dinner party. Jesus notes how the guests are vying for the best seats at the table and delivers his “parable” about guests at a wedding feast. I am not clear on why Luke refers to this pronouncement of Jesus as a parable. From a literary standpoint, it is much closer to a biblical proverb such as we find throughout the book by that name. Indeed, the likeness of Jesus’ words here to the proverb in our first reading was probably not lost on the host and his guests. Perhaps they found it rather witty, Jesus holding their behavior up to the mirror of proverbial wisdom. But Jesus has a larger purpose than amusing/embarrassing his dinner companions. His remark is a commentary on the social and political underpinnings of this meal.
In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, meals are sacred. One might even refer to them as sacramental. They are constitutive of community. Passover, Feast of Booths and so many other ritual meals define Israel just as the Eucharist defines the church. Who you welcome to your table tells the world who you are, to whom you belong and who you worship. The Torah makes clear that the Passover meal is to be celebrated by all Israel. Though observed by families, Passover transcends the immediate family to include “all the congregation of Israel.” Exodus 12:1-13. This meal to which Jesus was invited was anything but inclusive of all Israel. Evidently, it consisted of the host’s family and “rich neighbors.” The whole affair is strikingly similar to George Babbitt’s use of dinner invitations to advance his social and professional status. See Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis.
Jesus sees in this occasion a “teachable moment.” “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors, lest you be repaid.” Of course, that is the whole purpose from the host’s point of view. In typical George Babbitt style, he is employing the practice of hospitality, not in the way envisioned by the author of Hebrews, but in order to advance his own standing and build up favors that he can someday call in. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is making a bad investment. Just how bad this investment is will be revealed in Chapter 16 where Jesus delivers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There it will become clear that this host, through his elaborate and exclusive dinner parties, is building a vast crevasse between himself and the coming messianic banquet with Abraham and all the folks he has seen fit to exclude.
Jesus warns his host to bridge the divide, close the gaping crevasse and open up the table of fellowship with all Israel before he finds himself on the wrong side of that divide. Let us not trivialize this message by turning it into a call for more social programs to care for the poor or for more advocacy on their behalf. Understand that I am not against either poverty assistance or advocacy. In fact, we could use more of both. But that is not enough and it does not get to the heart of the problem-the great divide between those of us who live in relative ease and the ever increasing numbers of people living in deplorable poverty. That divide will keep on growing as long as we continue treating the poor as a social problem to be solved rather than “the treasure of the church” as St. Lawrence would have it. It is not enough to feed the poor. Jesus sends us to invite them to the messianic banquet, to share our table.
In all candor, I am not keen on welcoming the poor into my home and seating them at my table. I would prefer to write a check or spend an evening every week dolling out food at the shelter. Let me be clear: don’t stop writing checks or volunteering down at the shelter. Just understand that we cannot let it end there. Meals are about more than eating. They are for building the people of God. So we have to find a way to make room at the table, our table, for the poor. I must say that I was delighted to learn of a church that is doing just that. At St. Lydia’s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., whoever comes to the table gets fed. The church is made up of approximately thirty people from a variety of faith journeys and backgrounds. They join each week to cook, eat and worship in each other’s company around the congregation’s three practices: working together, eating together and sharing their stories. Everyone who attends an evening service is invited to help cook. That way there is no distinction between the helpers and the helped. Everyone contributes to preparing the meal. Everyone is equally a member of the community. That is what makes St. Lydia’s so different from a mere soup kitchen. It is an extension of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone can feed hungry people. But only Jesus can invite them to the messianic banquet.