Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018

The Way of Humility

Hebrews 13:1-8 and Luke 14:1 and 7-14

 Jesus is at a symposium.  A symposium is a dinner party, after which there are one or more guest speakers.  The idea came from the Greeks, and the Jews adopted it by the first century.  

 For a group of people who supposedly abhorred Greek culture, the Jewish people certainly adopted a lot of their customs.  But so did the Romans, which is the reason why all the cultures so heavily influenced by the Roman Empire, including Great Britain, and subsequently, the United States, have so many relics of Greek culture in them.  We still have “symposiums” today.  Usually there is no food involved, but the basic idea of “listening together” to a guest speaker still happens in American culture.  

 In the case of Hebrew people, the guest of honor at a symposium would be a rabbi, or several rabbis.  After everyone ate, the rabbi would get up and speak.  If there were two or more rabbis, they might debate some finer point of the Law.  In this case, the rabbi is Jesus.  And the dinner party is at the home of a Pharisee.  Is it a trap?  Probably, but not necessarily.  We know that some of the Pharisees were genuinely interested in Jesus and his teachings.  

 But Jesus becomes interested in how the guests jockey and jostle to get the best seats at the banquet.  Again, this idea of seating arrangements according to social status came from the Greeks.  The best seat was at the head of the table, to the right of the host.  The worst seat was at the foot of the table, furthest away from the host.  The higher your social status, based on your wealth, title, place in society, the better your seat.  And this is so very typical of the world.  People want to elevate themselves and gain advantage over other people.  

 But this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus denied himself.  Though he was in very nature God, he emptied himself of his divine power and privilege and took on the form of a servant.  And he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, as we learn in Philippians chapter 2.  Jesus taught his followers to follow him in this way.  He said, “Among you, the greatest must become the servant of all, taking the lowest place.” He said that in Luke 22, among other places.  

 Jesus then makes two applications of this principle in the context of a symposium.  

 To the guests, Jesus says, “Voluntarily take the lowest place.  Don’t seek to elevate yourself above others, instead think more of them than of yourself.  If you take the lowest place, you might be moved up and honored.  But if you take the highest place, you can only be moved down and humiliated.”  Jesus is paraphrasing Proverbs 25: 6-7.  He is quoting Scripture they should have known and already been heeding.  

 And then to the host, Jesus says, “Don’t invite your equals and your social superiors.”  That is the way of the world, again.  The way of the world was that you would invite people of equal social status.  And then, later, when they throw a party, they will invite you back.  And of course, you’d also want to invite people of a higher social status.  Not all of them would come, of course.  But if a person of higher status came to your party then that was a plus in your column.  And maybe, just maybe, someday down the road, that person of higher status will invite you to their dinner party, and that would definitely be a plus.  In other words, the guest lists for these kinds of occasions were all about jockeying for social position.  

 Jesus says, “Invite those of lower social status.  In fact, invite those of much lower social status:  The poor, the lame, the blind.”  Now it was typical that when someone threw a banquet like this, they would invite some people of lower social status, but not too much lower.  You were seen as magnanimous, generous to invite some “lesser” people.  But no one would invite the destitute or the crippled.  Those people were seen as “cursed by God.”  They had no place in polite society.  

 Besides, poor people didn’t throw dinner parties.  They could never reciprocate.  They had no way to obey the social norms by inviting back the person who invited them.  And that, Jesus says, is the point.  It was true generosity to invite the poor, true humility to sit and eat and consider one’s “inferiors” to be their equals.  

 This was a radical idea Jesus was proposing:  Give a gift based on the need of the person receiving it rather than their ability to reciprocate in some way.  That is not the way of the world.  There is no free lunch in the world.  If I’m giving something to you, I’m going to expect something back in the future.  That’s the way of the world, but not the way of the Kingdom of God.  

 I think maybe the best parallel to what Jesus is saying here is the way we give gifts to our children.  It’s not unusual for us to give gifts to our children that we expect they will never be able to repay.  But we do it anyway.  Why?  Because we love them. 

What if we were to give gifts to others like that?  What if we were to love people so deeply that we would give them gifts without any expectation of reciprocation?  

 Isn’t that what Jesus did for us?  Do we have any way to pay back Jesus for all he has done for us?    

 This kind of generosity can only happen when we have deep humility.  And we can only have deep humility when we see ourselves in a different light.  It’s not easy.  We like to imagine we are indispensable, essential.  Pastors especially fall into this trap.  “I have to do it because if I don’t, it might not happen or it might not be done in a way that honors God.”  But the truth of the matter is that the world got along before we came into it, and it will continue after we’re gone.  

 We will never have real humility if we spend our time comparing ourselves to other people.  There is always someone out there that you can look at and declare, “I am better than THAT person!”  We should only compare ourselves to Jesus.  

 I think we also have to beware of false humility.  Even subconsciously, without being aware of it, we can put on an air of humility for the sake of manipulating others.  Real humility is never easy, and pride is always looking able to sneak up on us.  

 But only with real humility is real generosity possible.  

 People give for many reasons.  Some give out of a sense of duty or obligation.  Some give out of self-interest.  They want the advantage that can be gained by being seen as generous.  Some give out of pride.  They give to feel better than others.  Only with humility can we give in the best way:  Because we are overcome by gratitude for all we have received and we sincerely love God and our neighbors.  

 I think we can see some of these same principles at work in Hebrews chapter 13, which we heard from earlier.  Those verses we heard were the author’s “parting comments,” his or her last chance to say all the other things they want to say, but haven’t yet been able to work into the letter.  The author doesn’t use the word humility, but I think the idea of humility stands behind what he or she says.  

 First, love each other.  Show AGAPE love to each other.  AGAPE love is defined by thinking more of others than self, serving them, sacrificing of self to help others.  You can’t show that kind of love without humility, because without humility, you can’t think more of others than self.  

 “Show hospitality to strangers.”  Hospitality was very important in the early Church, a habit they learned from Judaism.  When travelers came through your town, you were expected to welcome them into your home for the night and feed them.  And, of course, it was likely that such travelers would never be able to repay that kindness.  

 “Don’t forget those in prison.  Suffer with those who suffer.”  Christians were well known in the first few centuries of the Church for visiting those in prison, which was highly unusual.  Normally, not even family visited people in prison.  People were ashamed to know someone in prison.  Admitting you knew someone in prison would damage your social status, not to mention the fact that there was a certain risk to associating with someone who was suspected of breaking the law in some way. 

 “Honor marriage.”  I wouldn’t say that this specifically had much to do with humility, but it certainly stood in contrast to the values of Greek and Roman culture.  In those cultures, adultery was frowned upon, but their definition of adultery was a little different than that of Christians.  In Greco-Roman culture, it was considered fairly normal for men to practice pedophilia, to have homosexual relationships, to visit prostitutes, and to have relations with their female slaves.  And none of those things were considered to be “adultery.”  So the Christian ethic of abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness in marriage were out of the ordinary for the time.

 And finally, “Be content with what you have.”  Resist the way of thinking that says, “I deserve more.”  Again, this is impossible without humility.  

 Humility, and the behaviors and attitudes that grow out of humility, are not the way of the world.  But they are the way of Jesus.  And they are the way he commands to his followers.   

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