Jesus' Parable on Humility
Jesus gave people a talk on table manners. The context was an invitation to a meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee. This was a significant compliment and Jesus had accepted. Some Pharisees were very impressed with Jesus and some were even interested in his message. The most good-willed towards Jesus recognised that he was no ordinary preacher. Some liked and secretly admired and followed him. The text says that Jesus was being carefully watched. But it also says that Jesus was carefully watching everyone else.
The table was not set with named place cards. So people arrived and sat down. Imagine a wedding reception. There must have been a top table and several tables close by. It would have been something like that. Some guests however made it their business to sit down at the top table even though they had no specific invitation to allow them to do so. Others got as close to where the host would sit as they could. No doubt they had their reasons. Perhaps they wanted to talk business. Maybe they wanted a favour. They could have been what used to be called social climbers. There could have been basic pride and snobbery. They didn't want to sit beside people they did not like or with whom they had nothing in common and with whom it would be difficult to have conversation. Status seeking is part of the human make-up and mentality.
Jesus rebuked these guests for their behaviour by telling them this parable. Its message was the opposite of what he was witnessing – a message of humility. If you go to a function, a feast, a celebration, Jesus suggests that you don't push yourself forward to get noticed. If you do you might be embarrassed if the host asks you to move to a less prominent seat. Sit down, said Jesus, in the seat furthest from the top table and be content. Let the host come and move you up the rankings if he wishes. And everyone will then witness the favour being shown to you.
Humility is not the way of the world. Ours is a world of self-promotion, of selfies, of false internet personalities, of projection and of getting the better of other people. Jesus' value of humility contrasted with the norms of his time. Social status, power, wealth, influence and wealth mattered much just as it does today. Middle east culture is still very hierarchical. But though there has been much social change in this country and indeed some would say it is unrecognisable from that of 100 years ago, from the era of Downton Abbey, there is still a pecking order in everything in this country today, including the Church of Scotland.
Yesterday New Zealand All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup. The team is led by Richie McCaw. He is the most capped test rugby player of all time with 149 international appearances for his country. He has captained the All Blacks more times than anyone else and yesterday he became the first rugby international captain to lift the World Cup twice in succession. He has won everything there is to be won in rugby. His family came from Islay. They settled in New Zealand's South Island not that far from Dunedin and he was brought up in a small hamlet called Kurow. Members of the All Blacks team were asked why he was such a special captain. They replied 'his humility'. When he was injured and had to miss a game, he acted as water carrier for the team. He would also carry out the plastic tee for Dan Carter to kick for goal and pick it up and take it back off the field. He has no ego. Contrast that with the egos of football players, their performing, demands and protected gated lives. Or with pop song divas who want a dozen white doves in their dressing rooms along with other ridiculous demands. Some of you will remember the trade union leader Gavin Laird. He loved the perks of his job. He arrived at airports early in the days when you did not have to do so to enjoy the first class hospitality suites, free food and drink and just the good feelings of being that important.
In what seems a different world and a bygone age, in the late fifties and early sixties Scottish preachers were highly regarded throughout the English speaking world. The prince of them all was Church of Scotland minister and professor James S Stewart. For a while he was regarded as the best Christian preacher in the world. He was the most humble and self-effacing man you could meet. Sometimes the students used to wind him up. When he asked for questions during one of his lectures, one asked, 'Who is the second best preacher in the world?' James Stewart blushed furiously and mumbled 'Oh – you shouldn't be asking me a question like that'.
A college friend of mine was once asked 'What is your best attribute for the ministry?' 'My humility', he replied. Once there was a woman who worked on being humble for three weeks. Finally, she was talking to her friend and this was the conversation that took place: "I finally did it! I finally reached the humble nature God wants of me" Her friend said. "I bet you're proud." "I certainly am!" The woman exclaimed. Some years ago I was greeting people at the door after the morning service. A woman said to me 'That was inspiring!'. 'That makes a change', I replied. 'Yes it does', she added. Muhummad Ali the boxer used to say 'I am so great and I am so pretty'. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle once looked out of the window and said, 'There are over 3,000,000 souls in London, most of them fools'. Lord Mountbatten was famously conceited. He planned his funeral procession to the last detail including having his riding boots placed back to front in the stirrups of his horse. King Louis XIV of France was once asked about the state. He replied 'I am the state'. Some of our own politicians have had great egos, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Alex Salmond, for example. It would seem that if you are indeed humble you will not get far in politics anywhere in the world. Arguably the wars of world history have been cause by great egos. Imagine history without Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon or Hitler.
So much of life is a striving after position and importance. Some of this can be inoffensive. The local Gala Queen has special status for a day or a week. Someone may receive an honour in recognition of some exceptional contribution to society or nation. There are decorations and knighthoods. Bravery in war is highly valued. There are the prestigious Nobel prizes for peace, science and literature. But there are great ego trips also. Oscar awards, BAFTA awards, Brit awards, Scottish politician of the year awards, footballer of the year awards, and many more. There are many social organisations with their own hierarchies, degrees, distinctions. Armed forces have ranks with visible signs of superiority. In this country we still have so called aristocracy and royalty. London east enders have their version – pearly kings and pearly queens.
The most hierarchical Christian church is the Roman Catholic Church whose organisational model is based on that of the Roman Empire. Orthodox churches have a more restrained hierarchy as do the Anglicans. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God are rather autocratic. The Church of Scotland certainly has reserved places for large egos in the ministry. But its institutions are meant to prevent anyone from getting above themselves for any length of time. Lord George MacLeod was Moderator in 1957/58. He was driven from Holyrood Palace to his last Assembly as Moderator in a large limousine with an army escort. When it was over he discovered that no-one had organised a car to get him home. So he took the bus. He later quipped. 'When I was Moderator I was IT – afterwards I Was EXIT'.
The troubles local churches have are usually caused by egos clashing. These can destroy congregations and have done. It is hard though to be humble when the other person is not humble and when you are proved right and the other person is proved wrong. In every human enterprise wrong decisions are made every day. Always have been and always will. It's hard to trust that the humble person will win in the end. Jesus though is our template and our example and our Living Lord. He who washed his disciples feet and he who went naked to his public execution. He has been there and done it all. He asks of us the same humility in the Church, at home and in all that we are and do. Humility makes the space for Jesus Christ to be able to live within us.