When I was in seminary at Sewanee I would ride down the mountain to Winchester and on the way back I would look at the top of the plateau as it surrounded the valley. Just off to the right, on the very edge of the plateau, there was this big white building. It looked like a giant had perched a white block on the bluff. For a while I would wonder to myself as I was driving just what this building could be, and that would be the end of it. Eventually though, I asked someone about the strange building, which I knew must be quite large to be so noticeable from the valley below and so far away.
It turns out the building was the Templeton Library. As I understand it, at that point there were no books in the library and only a portion of it was occupied, as the foundation that owned it rented a few rooms to people. It had been built by a man some of you might be familiar with, Sir John Templeton, the well known investment banker and philanthropist. Turns out he was born in Winchester Tennessee, and after he achieved his success on Wall Street and became a citizen of the UK, he still had a fondness for the area, so he built his library on the mountain near Sewanee with the understanding that upon his death (he died in 2008), his collection of books relating to science and theology would be transported there. It’s an interesting story. But that’s not the point.
The point is the irony.
I finally made my way to the Templeton Library one day, and discovered out in front of it, a larger than life-size statue of John Templeton. Templeton was an author as well as an investor and philanthropist, and in his hand–the statue’s hand–and down to his side, are a collection of his books, one of which bears the title “The Humble Approach.”
I don’t know whether Sir John appreciated the irony or if it was the idea of the artist, but the irony of a large statue of someone holding their book with a title like that surely couldn’t be lost on anyone.
And yet, even though we might find the juxtaposition of the statue and the book title to be ironic it brings to mind a struggle we all deal with, the struggle to be honest with ourselves; to actually be humble as opposed to desiring humility for others and recognition for ourselves.
In many ways our society makes it very difficult to be humble… it’s antithetical to so many values our culture espouses. Humility isn’t a hallmark of reality television shows, and even for those who avoided the negative effects of self-esteem misapplied and run amok in schools, we’re taught in our college applications, job hunting etc… to “sell ourselves” and present our best face to the world… the problem being that sometimes that face is unrecognizable.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with a problem observed by psychologists from Cornell University in the late 90’s. They published their findings in a paper entitled: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” and just as the title suggests, they found that there was an inverse correlation between a person’s competence and their confidence. In other words, a person who is incompetent at a particular task is much more likely to positively evaluate their own performance than a person who actually is competent.
We’re touching on something innate to human nature here–let’s call it pride–and just say that there are many illustrations to choose from. The result of all of this is a lack of truthfulness, either intentional or unintentional, that prevents us from seeing the reality of who we are and who God is.
And truthfulness is what humility is really all about. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says, among other things regarding humility, that it is about: “neither exaggerating nor denigrating the truth of what one is.” Thomas Aquinas defined it “as the virtue which restrains the appetite from pursuing great things beyond right reason. It is the virtue which is the moderation of ambition–not its contradiction, but its moderation. It is based on, though it is not identical with, a just appreciation of one’s own defects.” (p 148-149, A Brief History of Western Philosophy).
In our Gospel lesson Jesus is ministering in a world that is in some respects similar to our own, but also very different. It is similar in the sense that people are concerned with themselves–that’s a universal–but the way they exercised that concern was somewhat different. For one thing, whatever we may think of our society, it isn’t as socially stratified as the Greco-Roman world. In that world who one ate with and where one sat at the table were much more important concerns than they are in all but a few social groupings in our time. In this ancient Mediterranean culture social standing was supremely important. Receiving an invitation to dine with someone was an opportunity to establish or reinforce one’s social status and people would often vie for the positions closest to the host in order to raise their standing or at least maintain it.
Every time Jesus was invited to dine with someone, this sort of exchange was going on below the surface; this would’ve especially been the case when Jesus entered the homes of respected leaders, such as in today’s selection from Luke, where we find him in the home of a leader among the Pharisees. Jesus, as was often the case, seems to have been invited out of a mixture of interest and concern. Folks were watching him, waiting to see what he would do. Here was someone who didn’t fit into their neat categories or seem to care very much about their social conventions. This was a sabbath meal, and just as he had earlier healed the woman in the synagogue, Jesus, on his way to this Pharisee’s home for a sabbath meal, chooses to heal a man.
Jesus continues to challenge the assumptions of those around him, highlighting hypocrisy, subverting injustice and above all proclaiming the good news of salvation and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus watches the people showing up for the meal at the leaders house, watches as they choose their places to sit. One can imagine the looks that were exchanged as friends and acquaintances worked their way in and started to sort themselves out according to their perceived social status. When he sees them taking places of honor, Jesus tells them a parable about a wedding feast, a sure sign that he’s teaching about the Kingdom of God, and that his listeners–and us–are intended to draw a conclusion about the new order that God is putting in place.
In this new order, those who exalt themselves–the ones who choose the places of honor at feasts–will find themselves humbled, while those who do not presume, will find themselves exalted. Jesus uses the people’s own fear of disgrace to show them what they need to know. He’s not telling them that they aren’t important, instead, he’s showing them that their concern with social standing will not serve them in the Kingdom of God. If they exalt themselves, if they focus on status, they will find themselves humbled, because in this kingdom, everyone is called to serve.
In a teaching that echoes the call for the first to be servant of all, Jesus tells the folks at the meal: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The humility we seek isn’t one of self denigration, but the simple recognition that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, that we are called to repentance and at the same time that we are a people of God’s own redeeming, made in the image of God, icons of the Father restored by the Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in in new ways, in the Kingdom of God here and now. Humility is recognizing that no one is worth less than one thing: the very life of the Son of God. Nor is anyone worth more. This is another way of saying that we are equal in the eyes of God. We can call no one worthless, we can set ourselves above no one. At the same time, it is a false humility, and a harmful denigration for us to believe that we are ourselves somehow not as valuable as another. The truthful humility we are called to as Christians will allow neither falsehood. We are all called to be citizens of the Kingdom.
I can think of no better reminder of our need for humility and our status as new creations of the merciful God than the words of the Prayer of Humble Access:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Traditional language-absent a phrase-Rite I, 1979 BCP)
We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Contemporary, Common Worship of the C of E)