Monday, July 02, 2012

Best Seat in the House

Luke 14:7-11
by Daniel Harrell

As any who’ve seen the car I drive can surmise, I’m not much of a car guy. I drive a dumpy, rusty, dented, un-air-conditioned 2001 Honda Civic with 120,000 miles on it that hasn’t been washed since the last rainstorm. I’d like to say I drive it due to my concern for the environment (it does get good gas mileage with clean emissions), but mostly I drive it because I’m cheap. It costs less to insure than a newer car, and because it gets good gas mileage it costs less to fill up. Not only that, but on the few occasions I have to parallel park it, I can press into another car’s bumper and not have to worry about it. However, whenever it comes time to rent a car, I do usually go for something a bit more upscale than my Civic. Whenever we vacation in the desert Southwest, for instance, with all of that gorgeous sunshine, warm air and open space—you gotta rent a convertible. And not just any convertible—you gotta rent a Ford Mustang convertible. How could you cruise the desert in anything but? At least that’s what the Hertz rental car guy told me the last time we were there.

Dawn and I spent a vacation a few years back in this random little town a couple hours south of Albuquerque. It’s called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (named after the 1950s game show—it’s a long story). We got the keys to a spicy blue model, put down the top, put on our shades and sped off to grab a bite to eat, only to have our waitress say first thing: love your car. Initially, I had no idea what she was talking about since nobody had never said that to me before, but then I realized she was talking about The Stang. However, , being a minister, even on vacation, I had to be honest. “It’s just a rental,” I said, humbly. Afterwards, we drove over to the grocery store to pick up a few things for our vacation house. This muscle guy in the parking lot yells out, awesome wheels dude! Dude? That was cool. My car made me a dude. I’d never been a dude before. Dawn sensed my hesitation. So she piped up, “It’s just a rental!” Uh, yeah, I nodded.

From there it was on to the gas station. 50 bucks to fill it up. Still, standing tall, leaning over my bad ride. My cool wheels. My man machine. I garnered a few approving car-honks. Car-honks for the car-hunk. I waved back. Lookin’ good. Dawn rolled her eyes. After dinner that night, the restaurant owner chased us outside first to thank us for stopping by (a big enough shock in and of itself), but he then followed up that courtesy with yet another tribute: that’s one sweet car, man! He also told us to be sure and keep it clean since it’d be a shame to let the desert dust mar such a thing of beauty. Of course at this point it felt rude to say rental, given the effusion with which the accolades were now flowing. So I just said thanks, and let it go at that.

We humans are suckers for admiration. We love feeling important. We crave approval—even if we have to fake it to get it. A whole host of enterprises support our addiction. There’s the fashion industry, of course. The right handbag or shoes or jacket can set some people back a week’s salary or more. The cosmetic industry rakes in over $25 billion a year in profit. In the corporate world, a receptionist can be made happy by being renamed the “Director of First Impressions.” The same with the HR exec who becomes, “Vice-President of Culture,” alongside the fifty or so other vice-presidents. Because reputation is everything, we scramble to get into the right college regardless of the cost, the right neighborhood despite the racial demarcation. We pay extra for the name. Pay more to be seen at hot restaurant. The nice car on vacation.

None of this is new. Jesus himself acknowledges the human appetite for applause. Luke’s gospel has him at a banquet where guests jockey for the most honorable seats near the front. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, much like our own, formal dinners and wedding banquets were delicate thermometers of social status. Where you sat was the measure of your social rank. Jesus offers a few words of advice: “When someone invites you to a wedding banquet, do not take the place of honor, somebody more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited you both will come and say in front of everybody, ‘you’re in the wrong seat.’ And then, red-faced and humiliated, you will have to move to the back of the room. Instead,” Jesus advises, “when you get a banquet invitation, take the back chair, so that when the host arrives, he will see you and say, ‘My goodness, friend, get yourself up to the front of the room!’ Now that will give the dinner guests something to talk about!”

At first glance, rather than condemning our human hunger for recognition, Jesus seems to be suggesting a better strategy for getting it. Don’t act important, he seems to say, act modest. Self-deprecate. Humble yourself. Sit at the back and wait for it. Pretend a little bit. Then you’ll be exalted—and get an audience too.

Unfortunately, humility is hard to do. In ancient societies, humbleness implied slave status: lowlife, servile, obsequious, no account, worthless. In ancient Mediterranean culture, nobody considered humility a character trait toward which to aspire or even to fake. To be humble wouldn’t get you noticed at a banquet. Being humble would only get you kicked out of a banquet. Nevertheless, for Jesus, humility matters whether you’re the guest or the host. He will go on to advise that whenever you give a banquet, “do not invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and the outcasts and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. You will find favor at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus takes what first looked like advice on social-climbing and turns it into a commentary on Judgment Day. The wedding banquet is an allusion to heaven; the host who invites and then exalts the humble is none other than God himself. Throughout Scripture, God is a God of justice, who blesses the poor and balances the scales. If your goal is to score an invitation to heaven’s banquet, humility appears to be the ticket.

Which is not what anybody wants to hear. In our culture, humility is overrated if not psychologically hazardous. Sure, arrogance has its problems too, but certainly Jesus understands the documented dangers of low self-esteem. Everybody needs a trophy. Bible scholars try to lessen the sting by insisting that “to humble yourself” is merely to recognize your intrinsic “creatureliness.” After all, the English word humility is related to human, it derives from the Latin humus meaning ground or dirt, the dust from whence you came. To be humble is to remember that “you’re only human,” a good excuse, actually, for all kinds of things.

However for Jesus it wasn’t enough to admit you came from dirt. You needed to realize that you really are dirt, at least as far as God is concerned. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” is how the Bible sternly puts it—appropriately foreboding on a hellish hot summer day. Except that again, to be dirt, to be humble, is actually good news. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we read, “and are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” In the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, where lost is found and least is great, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And conversely, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Jesus illustrates this later in Luke by way of that familiar story of a Pharisee standing tall and praising God for making him such a good person. Jesus stacked the religious man’s high self-esteem up against that of a sinful and lowly tax-collector, a man who could only look down in shame and pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “The tax-collector went home righteous that day; for all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Of course, some might also say that there is not much use in exalting the humble since they do not remain humble long once they’re exalted.

As my southwest vacation wore on, I took every opportunity to tool around Truth or Consequences in my fine, true blue Mustang, I basked in the envy and admiration it stoked. I was a car guy. Knowing a huge crowd gathered at nearby Elephant Butte Lake for July Fourth festivities, it seemed obligatory to spin over in my ride and cruise the beach. This was one of those beaches where you could actually drive onto the sand, so I thought, yeah, this will be good. True, Dawn kept saying to me, “you’re going to get stuck,” but I said, “no way sweetheart, this rod rocks.” A jeep-full of college kids pulled alongside and were like, “hey mister, sweet car, is that a six-cylinder or a GT?” I said, “You better believe it’s a GT,” whatever that means. I secretly motioned to Dawn to check the manual in the glove compartment. “Don’t leave us hanging,” they shouted, “show us some engine, baby, kick up some dust.” “Yeah,” I said. I liked how these kids comprehended my coolness. I gave her some gas. Right there in the sand.

 Of course instead of kicking up dust I just dug a hole. Or in my case, a humiliating grave, buried deep right in front of the kids. They probably knew that would happen. And probably assumed I was dumb enough to do it. As they mercifully came over to help the pathetic old man out of his hole, one of them noticed the Hertz sticker on the rear bumper. “You know mister, you shouldn’t be driving your rental car on the beach.” “Yeah,” I said, realizing there was another reason they called this town Truth or Consequences.

Hebrew College professor Solomon Schimmel reminds that humility requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves even if we are unhappy with what we see. The proud person rationalizes his faults, since to acknowledge them would threaten his sense of superiority. The humble person, on the other hand, readily admits guilt and patiently listens to reproof—even from her enemies. Your enemies never try to protect your self-image. Their scrutiny is often more accurate than that of your friends who’ll lie to make you feel better.

However, if such scrutiny only leads you to blame yourself unduly for your faults and shortcomings, then it is not genuine humility. To excessively berate yourself puts you in that twisted position of being proud of your humbleness. In the end you’re just as obsessed with yourself as you were when you were smug. Pride is inordinate self-concern whether you cloak it in self-congratulation or self-condemnation. Both attribute more power and importance to yourself than you actually possess.

They key to true humility is not to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less. Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once asked, “How can you be humble if you are always paying attention to yourself? If you were truly humble you would not bother about yourself at all.” In the end, the best way to think of yourself less is to think of others more. God will keep his eye on you. “Whenever you give a banquet, invite the poor, the blind, the humiliated, the outcast, the sinner,” Jesus said. Which is what Jesus does by inviting you and me. The banquet table is spread for us. Let us confess our sins to Almighty God.