Luke 14:1; 7-14
We should note a couple of things right at the beginning.
Jesus had dinner with his opponents; even his enemies watching him closely and plotting his death. That deserves mention simply because it is so rare in our experience that people who disagree actually sit down with one another. We take for granted the divisions that name us – red, blue, conservative, liberal – and rarely cross lines unless by accident or necessity. Like, for instance, the occasional wedding party that brings all sorts of people together that might otherwise remain distant. That being our experience we might expect Jesus to shun his opponents rather than have dinner with them. As best I can tell from the gospels, Jesus never passes on an opportunity to have dinner and a conversation. That’s something to remember.
It’s one thing to notice the kind of jockeying for social prominence that is so common, and not just in the corridors of power. It’s quite another to actually point it out at the moment it is happening. Jesus has courage … and compassion. Here in the home of the Pharisee he displays both, and once again gets into trouble for his efforts.
Is it possible to teach humility to one who needs it without humiliating the one who doesn’t? The obnoxious and annoying ones whose ego demands a place at the head table and in every photo opportunity might actually benefit from a set back and a stern reprimand from Jesus: those who exalt themselves will be brought low. Probably the rest of us too can take a lesson in humility when so much of what we experience is about getting to the top and staying there as long as possible. It’s the cultural air we breathe and implicit in most of our education. It’s at the heart of House of Cards, the dark television parable of power with Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey and a host of characters, who demonstrate what it costs to maintain social power through manipulating every relationship including their own until they arrive at the top. How do I get to the best seat in the house is the only question that matters at the end of the day. For folks with that driving question, Jesus lesson in humility is apt. Take the low place and you will arrive at the right place.
It’s one thing to tell someone in the high place to take it down a notch for his own good; it’s another to tell someone in the low place to stay right there. The humiliated don’t need a lesson in humility. So we have to be careful about humility, especially if we are attempting to teach others what they may not hear in the same way Jesus intended. Jesus’ parable is a cautionary tale for those who are scrambling for the high places. But it bestows dignity on those in the low places. Because when you take the low place and you will arrive at the right place: the right place in the kingdom of God.
For example, against all odds even with his peers, Jesus’ humility is what Pope Francis is displaying for the world to witness. You may not agree with him on everything (I don’t), but with his plain robe, his apartment in the community of priests, and his carrying his own baggage (in every sense of that phrase!) he is pointing to the low place that is the right place in the reign of God. In an astonishing break with the debauchery and scandal we’ve sadly come to expect, Pope Francis is also enacting the second lesson Jesus offered to his host. Humility is the personal practice that gives way to the social practice of hospitality.
Go to the low place and you will arrive at the right place. This is hospitality Jesus’ style.
So what does Pope Francis do that shocks the world, offends his Church curia and brings joy to those looking for a sign of Jesus? On one of the holiest holidays of the Christian calendar, he goes to a prison to wash the feet of prisoners, which is the deepest most visceral way of offering forgiveness and the grace of Christ to anyone, let alone a stranger behind bars. He knelt at the feet of a young Muslim teenager to kiss her feet with kiss of Christ. Of course everyone was shocked – some with joy – while many in his Church were deeply offended to such radical hospitality extended to the least among us. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
In his first general audience before crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Francis spoke of how following Christ “means learning to come out of ourselves … in order to meet others, in order to go toward the edges of our existence, to take the first steps towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are farthest from us, those who are forgotten, those who need understanding, consolation and assistance.”
He will take only one international trip this year. He chose not the typical places of power and prominence, where he can dine with the elite. Instead he went in another direction, to Brazil. It’s true it has the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, but the Pope didn’t just hang with the normal crowd: the bishops, the wealthy and the powerful in government. He went to the lowest places in Brazil to bear witness to the hospitality of Christ. Visiting among the poor in favela outside Rio de Janeiro, celebrating communion with prisoners and sharing with AIDS patients in several hospitals.
These are the low places where Jesus’ himself encourages us to welcome people to the table. Radical hospitality Jesus’ style is the central to Christian practice, not merely the reciprocal practices that are common; one dinner party invitation means another right back at you. We know that practice and perhaps at its simplest level there is nothing wrong. But we shouldn’t confuse that with the audacious gestures that Jesus is encouraging for his community by inviting the least likely to be ever welcomed anywhere.
The great writer Flannery O’Connor famously paraphrased Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” I think the same can be said of the community that practices hospitality Jesus’ style. The truth shall make us all odd because all the odd will be welcomed here at the Table of the Lord and we shall feast together in the kingdom of God.