Luke 14: 'When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Jesus noticed things, people. He was a people watcher. He describes here a familiar setting - a celebration meal. We all have a sense of who the important ones are at a formal, or even informal meal, in any given social setting, even if we think status doesn't matter any more these days. Yes, we have Twitter, where you can message your favourite author or celebrity in the hope they will respond, but mostly, the more well known they are the less likely that is to happen.
At my school (all girls, fee paying, 1980s) status mattered. The Head had status. She had 'presence'. She ate lunch with a different table of 'gells' every week on the dining hall. Obviously, she took the top table, on the dais, and the 'top' seat on that table. If it was your turn to sit next to her you had to accord her the proper status while she complained about Elton John ('isn't he the one who writes everything in C?') and telepathically expected things to be passed her (salt, jug of water) at just the right moment without her having to ask for them. It always gave me indigestion.
Status is not dead. Alain de Botton writes (status) 'anxiety is provoked by, among other elements, recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, conversations with colleagues in the same industry, newspaper profiles of the prominent and the greater success of friends'. I only have to think about colleagues who have finished their Curacies already while I trudge into year four and at least three more 6 hour training days, plus paperwork, and I break out in a cold sweat...
Jesus 'noticed' how guests subtly chose the places of honour and of course he wants reversal, in his inimitable way (you can see why he made enemies amongst the religious status holders...) Aim for the lowest place and you will be moved higher, maybe. We all want to be noticed, to count. Who can think of someone who's so secure in their identity that they can be said to be truly humble? It's difficult. Rev. Angela Butler, a colleague on our Team, who passed away in the Spring, was such a person. She was ready and willing to serve the church as a single woman three decades before women could be ordained, but she never complained about her apparent lack of status; instead she waited patiently until the Church came round to the idea. She served by making others feel good about themselves and by underplaying her own talents and her vast experience of ministry. Other people, ordinary people, genuinely interested her - she was constantly amazed, like a child, by the ordinary situations where she perceived something extraordinary to be a work.
Is humility a spiritual issue? 'Humus', from which we get 'humility', means earth.When you're earthed, you know who you are and you understand your status before God, others and self. The earth is good. The earth IS. By chance we sang 'For the Beauty of the earth' as we considered this passage in church: I like the version which uses the tune 'As with Gladness', particularly as Beth Nielsen Chapman sings it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAf_FsS0YFM (it's really beautiful, especially the key change...)
If your view of reality is as forgiven person, reliant on God, it's refreshing not to have to grab onto personal status. Who we are counts before what what we do. A completely counter cultural way of looking at life. When my maternal grandpa died a prayer was discovered in his desk. It surprised the family - he did not come across as an especially religious man. It was entitled: 'A Prayer for Humility':
'Lord, keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject.
Release me from the craving to straighten out everyone's affairs.
Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.
Make me helpful but not bossy.
With my vast store of knowledge and experience it does seem a pity not to use it all.
But Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.'