Brief synopsis of the readings: In the book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) we find a father giving advice to his son: “The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favor with the Lord… There is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an eveil growth has taken root in him.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a man who attends a wedding. He advises against choosing a place of honor because of someone more distinguished shows up you will be publicly moved to a lower place. Instead you should choose a place of humility knowing that you may be asked to move to a higher seat.
When we look over our lives we all find common events that we remember for the rest of our lives. Sometimes these events happen in private (like the birth of our children) and some happen in public. Many of us count our wedding day as our best public day. It’s a day when people from all of our lives come together. Our cousins meet our coworkers. Our best friend from 5th grade meets our current next door neighbor. Your fiance meets the matriarch of your family.
Weddings are both joyful and terrifying, and they have been so from the time of Jesus to today. It’s a day that needs to go well. I joke about this, but it’s true: many have been planning this day from their earliest days.
And weddings also create stress for guests, or at least the receptions. Guests find their seating for weddings with little regard for their importance but the receptions are another story. Receptions tell wedding guests how important they are and how close they are to the bride and groom. Wedding guests hope they will be seated close to the head table and with people they already know.
Sometimes the bride and groom go in the other direction: they seat strangers next to each other in the hopes that new friendships will develop. And I think we can all agree that this rarely works. While we all treasure the fantasy of meeting our life partner at someone else’s wedding, it almost never happens. Most of the time we spend the evening attempting to appear interesting to people we’ll never see again, and knowing they are doing the same.
Now imagine a place where you don’t know anyone but you know that the people you meet will make your life better. That’s heaven.
And what’s hell? Hell is what happens to the person in the Gospel. Imagine going to a wedding and believing you were seated in a place of honor. When everyone is seated, with everyone looking, you are told that you don’t belong in your seat, and you are humiliated by being shown to a lesser seat.
The idea of public humiliation scares all of us and it should. Anthropologists agree that we are social beings and our reputation and public standing matter. Being called out and embarrassed in front of a large group of people terrifies us.
But if we look at these readings as nothing more than social advice we miss a great deal of the depth of these readings. We fail to recognize the gift of humility and how this is central to our belies as followers of Jesus. See where this Gospel begins? Jesus went to the Sabbath meal at the home of a leading Pharisee and observed them. More to the point he observed that he was being watched to see where he would sit. This doesn’t look like the Pharisee is setting a trap but he is. If Jesus had taken a place of honor the Pharisee could have said: “Oh yes, he preaches humility for his disciples, but clearly not for himself.” On the other hand, had he taken a lesser seat the Pharisee could have said: “Why do people listen to this guy if he’s no better than them?”
Then, as now, we come to expect and take for granted that rank, wealth, and status carry with it certain perks. If you’ve ever been to the Pentagon just outside of Washington DC you can see it: parking spaces are allocated by rank. If you’re a general you can practically park next to your office; if you’re a private you’ll get your steps for the whole day by 8AM.
And don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with some of the perks we receive. The problem comes when we believe that we deserve these perks because we are better than them. My wife and I are members of the San Diego Zoo. Like many places there are levels of membership and the more you pay, the more privileges you receive. Those in the highest levels of membership receive the greatest perks, and some of these perks are about exclusivity. We have a high membership level and yesterday we enjoyed an early entrance and breakfast. Later, when it opened to the general public, a number of people walked by our table and commented on the mimosa glasses they saw.
The comments were all good natured but it was obvious to me that the only difference between us was the fact that we chose to give more money. But as I looked around I wondered how many people in our group honestly thought they had earned this exclusivity.
Time and again we learn of people who do incredibly stupid and sinful things in the belief that they deserve the gifts they have claimed. Here in San Diego we had a congressman who was incredibly popular in his district. Before he served in Congress he flew jets for the Navy and did it well. In 1972 he was awarded the Silver Star.
In 2005 he plead guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and spent 8 years in prison. So what happened?
Truthfully, fighter pilots need to feel invincible to be able to complete their missions. But this man expanded this confidence to believe that he was too smart to be caught. The investigation showed that he wrote down the his “price list” on official congressional stationary.
Simply put, he grabbed a seat at the table that told him he deserved the money. He didn’t.
I recognize that none of us are likely to be in a position to demand bribes, and that none of us would accept the bribes. But we all, from time to time, find a temptation to think ourselves “better.” Maybe when we get exclusive invitations. Or when take too seriously when we’re told how wonderful we are. Or when we get angry because we think someone “doesn’t know who we are.”
Instead of that, let’s look to heaven: to a place where we don’t know anyone but we know that the people we meet will make our life better.