Sunday, 1 September 2019

Trinity 11: Knowing your place

Everybody’s watching everybody else in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees, religious experts, are “watching Jesus closely”. But Jesus, we are told, is watching them too. “He noticed how the guests chose the places of honour”.

We talk about living in a surveillance society these days, but people have always watched each other, noticing the subtle visual clues that help them make judgements about others. Are they friend or foe? Rivals or allies? Wanting to talk, or wanting to be left alone? Interested in what we are saying or dying to get away? Some people are more observant than others, of course, and some people are easier to read than others, but actions reveal what words may try to hide.

In Jesus’ case, the people-watching was happening in the course of a Sabbath meal which he’d been invited to at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, a high-up, important person in this particular religious movement. It was obviously a reasonably formal do, with all sorts of etiquette to observe, and the first and greatest hurdle was where you sat. How important were you? Where did you come in the pecking order? Who got to sit at the top table? Who was on the host’s right and left hands? There was no seating plan; you had to work it out for yourself. It sounds as if it was quite entertaining to watch as people jockeyed for position, gave way to others, or didn’t.

It’s the same in most gatherings and groups. There are the Alpha males, the Queen Bees,  the ones who set the trends and make the rules, who head straight for the best seats, buoyed up by an indelible sense of entitlement, whether they are really entitled or not. Then there are those who aren’t sure they’re meant to be there at all, newcomers who hover by the door watching for the slightest hint that they aren’t welcome so they can beat a hasty retreat. Then there are those in between. There are the ones with “imposter syndrome”, who find themselves a little higher than they are comfortable with, and can never quite relax in case they get found out. And there are the “humble braggers” the ones who ostentatiously insist that “no, no, I couldn’t possibly sit there – you take that seat – I’m really not important enough for it!”, while making sure that everyone else notices them doing it.  

Anyway, eventually the people at this dinner settle down. Everyone has a place. The “imposters” have come to the conclusion that if they’ve sat in the wrong place, they seem to have got away with it, again. The humble-braggers are content that everyone has noticed precisely how humble they are. The hoverers-near-the-door have perched themselves on the end of a bench, and the entitled ones are surveying the scene with satisfaction, congratulating themselves on being so important.  All is well…until Jesus opens his mouth and says what most of them have actually been thinking for the last half hour or so anyway.

“Are you sure you’re in the place you are meant to be? What if the host were suddenly to say, right now, with everyone looking that you – or you – or you – had taken a seat which was meant for someone more important than you? What if you – or you – or you – were suddenly told to get up and go to the back? What if you’ve got it wrong?”

In any culture, in any group of people, this would be very embarrassing; in Jesus’ culture, a culture where honour and shame were the guiding principles, it would never have been forgotten. You would probably never feel able to show your face again. His little parable of the banquet where the guest is made to take that “walk of shame” would have hit home very powerfully. How do you know you are in the right place? How do you know that you have got the right measure of your own worth? How do you know that you aren’t thinking too highly of yourself? Suddenly everyone is unsettled, looking at each other out of the corner of their eye, wondering if they are about to be humiliated.

This can all get very confusing, though.  Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, but if you humble yourself so that you will be exalted, is that really humility at all?
If we put others before ourselves, are we just “virtue-signalling”, trying to look “holier than thou”?  If we put ourselves down are we actually “humble-bragging”, fishing for compliments and admiration? If we are proud of our humility, how can it be humility?
And aren’t there times when we should take pride in ourselves, take up our space in the world? Of course there are.

We can end up going round and round in circles, getting more and more self-obsessed, but if we do, I think that might be because we have missed the point completely.  

Jesus isn’t just trying to upend the social norms, here, substituting a new pecking order for the old one. He’s doing something far more radical. He’s telling us that it isn’t about us at all. The problem is our self-obsession, which creates this burning need to have a pecking order in the first place.

The guests at this dinner are using other people simply as objects to measure their own worth against. They aren’t looking at them as people in their own right, with fascinating stories to tell, burdens or joys to share, who are either more or less important than them, above or below them. That’s the only thing about their fellows which matters; whether they make them look better or worse. It’s like picking your friends because they are fatter and uglier than you are, so that you look slimmer and more beautiful by comparison.

For Jesus, though, each person, whoever they are, is precious, a unique creation of God, just as they are. “Don’t invite those who can repay you,” he says. Invite those who seem to have nothing to give you. Invite those who are vulnerable and in need, because they are vulnerable and in need, those who would have found it hard to provide for themselves in Jesus’ time, and still do today. Invite them for no other reason than that they are hungry and you have food. Invite them for their sakes, not for yours, to meet their need, not yours. Of course, when we do this, we may – almost certainly will – end up feeling blessed, because we will discover that those we invite are blessings in themselves, but if that’s why we do it, for our own good, then it will always ring hollow. Jesus talks about God rewarding those who do this “at the resurrection of the righteous”, at the end of time, but that it will be the  reward of seeing the whole world made right, not some special prize we can, or will want to, hug to ourselves.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has the same message for the community he is writing to. “Let mutual love continue” he says; love that is based on equality, on the assumption that the other person is as valuable as I am. “Show hospitality to strangers” – people you don’t know, so you can’t tell whether they have anything you need. It’s about them, not about you. Identify with those in prison or being tortured– don’t treat them as if they are some other sub-human species who don’t need the same things you do. In marriage – and remember this is a society in which women were treated as property – show respect for each other. Don’t treat your partner as if they are just put there for your own convenience, to be picked up and dropped as the mood takes you.  “Be content with what you have”; don’t take more than you need because someone else will miss out, and greedy acquisition nearly always rests on exploitation. It’s a message we desperately need to remind ourselves of at this time, when greed and self-seeking seem to be getting the upper hand.

Treating others as people who are as valuable as we are is difficult though, which is why we so often fail to do it.

That’s why I am glad that the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t end there. “Be content with what you have” he says, “for God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’”. He’s quoting from God’s words to Joshua, the Old Testament figure who led the people of Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land, a scary and daunting task. (Joshua 1.5) “So we can say with confidence”, he goes on, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Why are we self-centred? It’s because we’re anxious about ourselves and our security. It seems like a dog-eat-dog world out there, if we don’t look out for number one, who will?  We can’t live generously, confidently, open-handededly unless we deal with that anxiety, that sense of being alone in a hostile world, with no one to rely on but ourselves. As our first reading put it, it is when our hearts have “withdrawn from their Maker” that we get into trouble, and the consequences can be dire, not just for us, but for everyone.

We need to remember what the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of, that we are not alone. As well as the other members of their community, with whom they are called to share that mutual love, this writer points them back to the first Christian leaders – the likes of Peter, Paul, James and John. They coped with the challenges and fears they faced because they’d come to realise that God would always be with them.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,”   That doesn’t mean that Christian faith can’t change and develop, as some people interpret this verse; it means that God will always be faithful to us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were the proof of that. God doesn’t pick us up and drop us on a whim, when it suits him, like some paranoid despot. He sticks with us, whatever happens.   

That’s the key to living in the way Jesus teaches. We need to learn to trust that the only opinion of us that really matters is the opinion of God, and that his opinion is always that he loves us with a never-ending love. If we can do that we’ll never need to put others down in order to raise ourselves up, or measure ourselves anxiously against them, because we’ll have nothing to be anxious about. 

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