Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, "When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Luke 14: 7-11
Parables are simple stories. But life is complex, and parables point to this complexity. Interpreting parables is difficult; in the midst of many mistakes I have came across a principle of interpretation which I am ready to present seriously to professional Biblical scholars. It is this: never rest content with a solution to a parabolic riddle until you have first settled with at least two attractive premature solutions. Never feel confident that you are at dead center until you have been .wooed by some eccentric attractions. Seldom does this principle speak so directly as it does with the parable which our Lord addresses to us this week.
On the surface, all is simple. We are in the closing cycle of the church year, and the Gospels point to aspects of Christian character. This week, it happens to be humility, following in the steps of the Humble One, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister. So far so good. All is simple, so long as we read it as a lesson in etiquet for the Kingdom of God —it is, then, so easily solved and so easily dismissed.
And as a harmless bit of Amy Vanderbiltian advice it is most attractive. Look at the story on the face of things. It discusses protocol; Jesus sets the instance at a marriage feast—a forbiddingly formal affair. His rough and tumble disciples may have needed a lesson or two: finesse, to the eyes of a country boy in a tuxedo, may still be exposed as clodhoppery by his sophisticated cousin. Chicago rehearsed protocol for weeks to greet Queen Elizabeth II last summer. We did everything just right. The British papers thanked our city for its rousing, roustabout greeting, which in midwestern fashion—dispensed with all protocol. So practice how to sit, where to sit, so that you will not be exposed at the heavenly banquet—is this the point of Jest teaching?
To what does this head start tempt us? Viewed a chapter in a Gospel of Etiquet it is a chapter for self-advancement and self-enhancement. Evidently status-seeking did not have to await a twentieth century prophet like Vance Packard; it existed long ago. Location of reclining seats at ancient banquets was a precise art. I, too, own commentaries, and they can te you which of three people on a couch held highest rank. And, in terms of the parable, which of the thrt if he presumed was most likely to be removed to the edge where the stale cigaret butts stagnated the dust-plus corners of the couch. No, says Jesus, don't seek a high place, or you will be nudged unceremoniously to the bottom and experience public shame. So what do we do?
Misinterpretation No. 1: Calculate, this is the gambit of the religious man, who is shrewd enough to be humble so that he can be proud of his humility and thus be advanced. He is not a new type. They use to call them, as they paraded past Jesus, Pharisees. Isn't this what today we would call, in, say, Bonhoeffer’s terms, the religious man? Inwardness, a pious stance, a publicly plaguing conscience, a blue-veined-hand inhumanity, a dilettante personality type, ("Aren't you just fascinated by religion?") are the prerequisites. God cannot help but notice such a humble man—all men do. Advance! Go to the top!
No, says the Christian faith; this denies the nature of Christian humility which is in its most profound instincts opposed to calculation. Aspiration of this sort is dishonest. The Prodigal Son dare not kneel and then look over his father's shoulder to see how the roasting of the fatted calf is coming along. You cannot sneak up on God.
Miscalculation No. 2: Play it safe. This is the gambit of the American, who is shrewd enough not to be involved in the extremes of the parable. Maybe he a newer type, because the parable makes no direct provision for him. In what I trust is still current parlance, he plays it cool; he is the relaxed pragmatist, who knows what is useful in the parable. He has a head on his shoulders; he can size things up. Why take the risk of heading for the head table and losing all? He knows there are seats at mid-distance where there is still status and prestige and comfort; not in the spotlight but also not behind the posts and off behind the cigar smoke. Here is a typical religious solution for our day: avoid profound commitment and risk. Know person-hood by subtraction; assert the semi-positive through the semi-negative. No, says Jesus, authentic personhood and authentic humility are the requisites.
Interpretation. There may be others, here is mine. The parable has nothing to do with etiquet. It does not talk about masks but about persons; it does not say to act so much as it says what to be. God will dispose as he will, no matter what personality type He is forced to work with. Because he is what he is, the man of humility takes the bottom seat. Calculator No. 1 immediately spots the risk: suppose he is not elevated—what good did his humility do him? Calculator No. 2 can underscore it: you should have played it safe. God didn't even notice him—now the party's over!
All these calculations and miscalculations are rendered unnecessary and meaningless it we interpret this as etiquet but in the context of most of Jesus' parables. Then we see it with the sharp ring of urgency; it is told, as it were, in a hurry. Theologians would say it has an eschatological ring; it sounds as if the end of things is at the end of the parable! Viewed in this light, what is the message? Jesus is dropping a hint not how we must act but what we must be at the Heavenly Banquet, where newness, newness of the New Creation breaks in upon our routinized and patternized lives. He is concerned not with the presentation of selves through masks but with the nakedness of our inadequacy and the reduction after our pride is annihilated through His law. Pride defeats its own ends; it confronts and encounters others' pride. Humility its own reward; it is part of the life hid with Christ in God.
Such humility is born of the faith which trusts in God who is Father of Jesus Christ and which responds by taking life in stride. Jesus walked this way, and he found a place. On a gallows. "He humbled Himself, even to death on a cross." Amen.
P.S. There is a sequel. There had been no calculation, no self-seeking. "Wherefore God has highly exalted Him . . ." Paul, an early commentator, adds ethical note: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." Let it; and, again: Amen.