Last Shall Be First -- Lectionary Meditation for Pentecost 15C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Last Shall Be First
Anyone who wants to be President of the United States needs to have a certain amount of hubris to seek the job. You have to believe that among the millions of Americans you are best qualified to lead what, at least at this point, is the most powerful nation in the world. It’s not a job that I would seek, but isn’t hubris part of the human drive to succeed? As a preacher, doesn’t it take a degree of hubris to stand before a congregation and proclaim a word that is deemed a word from God? Now, being that I am a preacher and believe that God can speak through my words – why else get up there on Sunday morning – I do believe that it is the Spirit and not my genius that ultimately brings the Word of God to the listener. But, if I’m honest, I do take pride in what I do.
We talk a lot in Christian circles about servant leadership. We look to Jesus and see in him a certain degree of humility that we deem worth imitating in our own lives. But despite the typical picture of Jesus as being meek and mild, if you read the Gospels carefully, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t afraid of mixing it up. He claimed a personal authority that included forgiving sins and reinterpreting the Law. That takes a bit of audacity. Now, we could chalk it up to Jesus understanding a divine status that allowed him to do this. But, if we’re to look to him as our model, do we have license to act with a degree of authority?
Growing up I suffered from poor self-esteem, which have led in two different directions. At times I’ve shrunk back to the rear of the group. Other times I’ve tried to push myself forward. There’s value in this – of knowing when and where one should assert one’s self. Discerning that time and place does, however, often come with at least a few embarrassing moments. You may assert yourself authoritatively and be knocked down just a few rungs. I’m still learning how this works at fifty-five!
The readings for the week speak of knowing one’s place – of being a person of humility and grace. These are good words for consulting as we deal with the temptation to hubris.
The reading from Proverbs 25 is brief and to the point. The author of this bit of wisdom counsels deference. “Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or stand in the place of important people.” In a hierarchical society where the king was often considered nearly divine in nature, this is definitely a word of wisdom. But even in our society, most of us know better than to simply walk up to the President of the United States and start a conversation. If the President invites you – well that’s a different story, but don’t think you can just jump to the front of the line. Better to be invited to the head table than to be sent away. Yes, we must know our place!!
This sentiment is taken up by Jesus in his parable found in Luke 12. Jesus had gone to the house of a Pharisee, and he began to watch the behavior of the guests. He noticed how the guests were jockeying for the best seat in the house. Your social status was marked by where you sat. Seeing this Jesus offers a word of wisdom.
When you go to a wedding, don’t try to sit in the seat of honor. That is, don’t go down and sit at the head table. There might be a more important guest coming, and you might suffer the indignity of being asked to give up your seat for this other guest. As a result you end up sitting at the back of the room, behind the pole, in the last place. Wouldn’t it be better to sit at the back, and then be invited by the host to move forward to a seat of honor? The last shall be first, and the first last. Don’t think of yourself too highly. This is a key point that appears throughout Scripture – God will bring down the proud and lift up those on the margins. It is a message that Mary sang of and which Jesus lived out on the cross. As we read this text, we should do so in light of the cross, for Jesus humbled himself and died on a cross. He suffered humiliation, but God lifted him up in the resurrection. Now, we needn’t take this to extremes. We needn’t brutalize our bodies in order to please God, but in this story Jesus makes it clear that God does stand with those on the margins.
But Jesus isn’t finished. He also talks about the meaning and purpose of hospitality. Then as now there is this sense of reciprocity. I invite you and you invite me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reciprocating, but Jesus wants to push us beyond our own self-interest. He wants us to think about why we invite someone to dinner. Is it because we expect something out of it? Instead of treating hospitality in this manner, Jesus encourages us to invite those who cannot reciprocate. Invite to your banquet “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid in the resurrection” (vs. 13-14 CEB). This is a difficult word to hear because we seldom live in accordance with this directive. We don’t do this in our personal lives. We don’t do this in our congregations. And it’s clear from the political sentiment of the age, that we don’t want to do this in public life. The current mood, even among church people, is “I’ve got mine. You’re on your own.” We don’t want to pay taxes to support education, public transportation, health care, and more. What would Jesus do?
We conclude this conversation by turning to the word found in Hebrews 13. The author – we don’t know who the author is or even who the audience is – calls on us to “keep loving each other like family.” We are the family of God – but unlike some families, especially modern families, this isn’t narrowly defined. The family is expansive and inclusive – but also concerned about the welfare of everyone in the family. So, show hospitality to guests? Why? Well, you never know who is knocking at the door. In a word that is reminiscent of stories told throughout ancient cultures – you could be hosting angels and not be aware of it? Think back to the stories of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah and then Lot. How you treat the stranger determines your fate – as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah discovered.
The word to the Hebrews calls on us to remember the prisoners and those are mistreated – as if it were us experiencing this time of distress. Hold marriage in honor. We’re debating marriage equality – but as we do so we should also be having a conversation about it means to live in covenant relationship. Flee from the love of money – which we know can consume us. Gordon Gecko preached the gospel that “greed is good.” It is a gospel embraced by many. It isn’t however the gospel of Jesus. Be content, because God will not abandon you. Therefore, we can say with confidence – “The Lord is my helper and I won’t be afraid.” We can hold on to this promise because Jesus is the “same yesterday, today, and forever!” Therefore, with this confession on our lips we can boldly offer up our sacrifice of praise, confess the name of Jesus, and then do good and share what we have because this pleases God. It is important to remember that God isn’t impressed with rituals without hearts open to God and neighbor.
Yes, let us know our place as servants of the living God.