The Parable of the Guest who wanted the best place at the feast
The language of the Divine is sometimes a paradox and puzzle to the mortal mind. The Divine language can never be wholly defined or explained. Rather, it is something that can only be loosely described and vaguely alluded to because there is such a disparity between Creator and creature. Nonetheless, we must try and soldier on because only through the divine language given to us can we be somewhat sure of how to live and hopefully become holy.
The first paradox to grapple with comes to us through the ancient text of Sirach which happens to be the first reading for the twenty-second Sunday. “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are.” Greatness is revealed in humility. This turns things upside down, doesn’t it? The world has never held to the words of Sirach proved so often with the innumerable atrocities of ‘power over’ occurrences throughout history.
The second reading for Sunday, the Letter to the Hebrews uses the same type of confusing language as well. Contrary to what many imagine, the author tells us, God is not the untouchable mountain and blazing fire; not the great storm or trumpet blast; not the booming voice so terrible we might wish we never heard it. No, God’s Mountain is Zion –– full of life, bright with heaven’s light, ringing with festivity and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, a covenant of love.
So then, what do we hear from Jesus “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place”. Sounds like good advice to impress someone else: if you want to look good, put on the mask of humility, even if it is false humility.
But Jesus isn’t talking about how to impress people with dishonest intentions. What he is talking about is what is in the heart of the guest where no mask can hide its true nature. Those who exalt themselves, whether openly or through false humility, will inevitably be humbled at some time. Those who humble themselves, truly humble themselves from the heart –– they shall be exalted –– exalted by God.
The proof of this statement comes from our observation of the Son of God who is the epitome of humility. The God-man humbled himself to be born from a human mother and later would humble himself so completely by dying for the sins of the world.
Jesus continues to teach us. Not only are the guests who face the temptation of good impression and false humility, but the host of the party can fall into the trap too. Exquisite parties have always been judged with the criteria of who’s in attendance. Isn’t it the best and the brightest, the rich and the famous which make a party great? Or, in other circumstances doesn’t the host seek some kind of reciprocity in return for his expenditure and time? Well apparently, not.
Jesus redefines the role of a host, “Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Rejoice then, for re-payment will come in heaven. Wait a minute. Is Jesus suggesting that we act humbly only so that we might be exalted? Is he telling us to use the poor as our stepping stone into heaven? Is he saying that we just need to jump through these certain hoops to guarantee our fate?
No, Jesus is speaking today to a group of people who seem to understand only the logic of self-promotion: “noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.” And he insists that even on their own terms and in their rush to secure their honor, they will find themselves cut out: “and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man”. No matter how hard they try to inflate themselves, they will eventually fail: “and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.”
Just pretending to be the ‘least’ will not yield greatness in the kingdom. Pretending is as fruitless as reaching, as pointless as self-promotion. Either way, someone who tries will be asked to step aside, asked to proceed elsewhere.
When we reach for greatness, we will find only lowliness. When we live in lowliness which should be true and authentic, is when the greatness of the kingdom is revealed. No doubt a paradox and puzzle, but it is the will of God we need to recognize and hopefully follow.