For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Welcome to Jesus Unmasked! The following show notes are not a transcript but a reflection on this week’s Gospel scripture in the style of Lectio Divina. For our application of this sacred reading method, we follow four steps: (1) attempt to discern the literal meaning and context of the verses we read, (2) find metaphoric or symbolic meaning in particular words or phrases, (3) find connections from the scripture to our lives and our world, and (4) discern a call to action. If the notes or video spark your own ideas or questions, please feel free to leave comments and join our live conversations! Adam Ericksen and I host the Jesus Unmasked Bible study every Tuesday morning at 10:00 CT on the Raven Foundation Facebook Page.
This episode explores Luke 14:1, 7-14.
What’s Going On?
The Pharisees are watching Jesus like a hawk. Though he has been invited to the home of one of the leaders, Jesus is not really there as a distinguished guest but as a suspect to be picked apart. The Pharisees are scrutinizing him, looking for a “gotcha” moment.
At this point in his ministry, Jesus has gained a reputation for going against the power structures of his day. It is important to avoid an anti-Semitic reading here. Jesus’s criticism of the religious leadership of his time comes from within the Jewish tradition itself. He understands that the teachings of Torah are meant to build compassion and mercy in the hearts of the people, and he rebukes the weaponization of the law from an instrument of justice into a tool of condemnation. He has chastised the Pharisees not for keeping the details of the law, but for missing the message.
Shortly before this passage, Jesus has angered a synagogue leader by healing a woman on the Sabbath. From within Jewish tradition, he argued that to heal on the Sabbath is to fulfill the Sabbath’s purpose as a blessing and a mercy. In the part of the Gospel that is cut from the lectionary, Jesus again argues for and demonstrates healing on the Sabbath by healing a man with dropsy. The Pharisees are speechless. As they scrutinize Jesus, he is subversive to their faces, but he is subversive not with flagrant disregard for the law but with a radical obedience to it. The Pharisees know that Jesus is defying their interpretation of the law, and thus their leadership, on their own turf, and they can find nothing to say.
As the guests watch Jesus, Jesus also watches them. Noticing how they take their seats, he takes it upon himself to give them an etiquette lesson. “When you’re invited to a wedding banquet, don’t take the place of honor, in case there is another guest more distinguished than yourself, and the host humiliates you by asking you to move so that another may take your place,” Jesus tells them. “If you sit at the lowest seat, you might be asked to move up, and then everyone will notice. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus isn’t just being “Mr. Manners.” Three points must be made. First, it is not his place, by any common standard of propriety, to lecture the other guests in the first place. He is there to be picked apart silently, not to give the rules. This is badass of Jesus. The irony of his speech is palpable from the beginning, and it only grows.
Second, while it may seem as if Jesus is giving advice for how to “game the system,” he is actually throwing out the game altogether and starting a new one. The name of the game is Honor and Shame, but Jesus is turning it on its head. One could hear his advice and think, “Okay, if I want honor, I should start out humble so I don’t overstep my bounds, and then my humility will be noticed, and I’ll get ahead.” A reasonable interpretation… but nope.
For the third, crucial point, comes next. Jesus tells the guests that when they throw a banquet, they should not invite their friends, neighbors, or rich acquaintances, but the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” These people don’t get invited to parties, let alone as guests of honor! In a culture of honor and shame, of class distinctions not so unlike our own today, the poor were marginalized and excluded. Including them does not move one up the social hierarchy, for “they cannot repay you,” Jesus said. Instead, “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
What Does It Mean?
The very fact that Jesus has been invited into the home of a leader of the Pharisees for the purpose of entrapment reflects a sacrificial outlook that plagues not only the Pharisees, but all of humanity. The Pharisees see Jesus – and the upside-down Kingdom of God that he preaches – as a threat to their authority. Though Jesus does not seek or define power as they do, they see him as a rival for power – for influence, for wisdom, for the people’s access to God. Jesus is upsetting their sense of control, identity, and security with his radical love that reinterprets the law, heals on the Sabbath, and welcomes the poor and lame in from the margins.
The Pharisees want to assert their power over and against him. But, though Jesus has the authority to chastise the Pharisees, we are called not to judge them but to see how our own judgments and condemnations resemble theirs. When we perceive competition and threats to our identities and respond by trying to assert ourselves over and against others, we follow the same sacrificial spirit. This is a human pattern, easy to see and condemn in others but missed or justified in ourselves. For the lesson Jesus gives them applies just as easily to us.
And that lesson is to transcend rivalry altogether. Jesus wants to transform our understanding of ourselves, so that we find our identity not over and against others, but instead with and for one-another. Jesus is telling us not to put ourselves into the position of competing and asserting ourselves over each other in the first place.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This sounds like lofty, eschatological wisdom – a claim about ultimate destiny. But actually, this happens all the time. When we are guided by ego and driven by the urge to get ahead of others, we will inevitably fall. There will always be someone smarter, wittier, stronger, more successful… and if we are not content to be our best selves without being better than the rest, then we spend our lives in frustration. Always competing, we put ourselves in a position where someone will best us, and rather than appreciate the other’s talent, we lament our own failings.
But if we humble ourselves, we will be uplifted. Humbling is not about concentrating on how to make ourselves smaller, for even that is a kind of ego-boost, striving to outdo others in humility. Rather, it’s about seeing ourselves as just a small part of a much greater whole and putting our energy and time and talent into getting to know and seeing the best in others. We are not in competition because we recognize that our unique role in the world is not over and against others but with and for everyone. Genuine love and appreciation of others brings out the best within us while also summoning forth the good in all. And we are literally exalted, uplifted, because we take part in creating an atmosphere of joy. This is how the Kindom of God – the Fellowship of Love – flows from the inside out and illuminates all it touches.
The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind… these are the people who are often crushed under the weight of a world enslaved in rivalry, a world at war. Pushed aside, humanity denied. Jesus tells those of us with means (he is speaking to religious leaders, people with some wealth or power to share) not just to give to the poor, but to feast with them. Celebrate with them. Share joy with them. Befriend them. Embrace them in their full humanity. Until there is no longer distinction, until all lines of class and social status are dissolved in love.
Jesus’s message to the poor themselves is “Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And so when we befriend the poor, we open ourselves to the Kingdom. “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous,” Jesus tells us. If we follow his words, throw a party for the poor, and wait for rewards or blessings, we have missed the point. The Kindom is already among us when we see all people in their full, divine-reflecting humanity. It is here when we see each other not as obstacles to our own success or rivals for our resources, power, influence, etc… but when we see each other fully in Love.
What Connections Can We Make?
On a personal level, I alone know how often I feel in competition with those around me, how prone I am to envy, how much I desire the talent I see in others. I often compare myself to others in a self-deprecating way. In measuring myself over and against others, I tend to cut myself short. But I also cut others short, even when I measure them favorably, by seeing them through a lens of rivalry rather than being open to their full, unique, mysterious humanity.
As Jesus calls us out of rivalry and an economy of exchange, of measuring ourselves against one another, giving in order to receive, holding others in debt or feeling indebted, I know I have much soul-searching to do in order to follow Jesus. Rivalry and competition is a fog; coming into focus and regaining sight from blindness is a lifelong process.
On a collective level, our national policies have long pushed the poor further and further to the margins. The myth of self-sufficiency plays a strong role in the culture of the United States, and while fewer resources are allocated for the welfare of the people, the poor are often blamed for their own poverty. While over half of discretionary spending goes to weapons and wars that kill people and exploit resources of other lands for profit, marginalization and demonization of the poor persists in this country. And now, in a country in which some immigrant people founded a nation on land taken from indigenous people and further cultivated this land and its resources through the labor of enslaved people, laws are barring the doors to potential immigrants who may not be self-sufficient.
None of us are self-sufficient. We can only exist in community. We need each other.
What would it take to imagine, create, and implement policies that recognize the full humanity, and strive to fill the human needs, of the poor? The personal and political feed and fuel each other in an endless cycle. When Jesus calls us to befriend the poor, he calls us to a new way of living together in which we take care of each other. It starts with the personal, with human-to-human connections, with taking the words and actions of Jesus seriously. From there, we listen, we hear and strive to understand the needs, desires, and hopes of the poor who are now our friends. We recognize policies that demonize the poor that we may not yet see. And we work together to change them. As national policies change, conditions change, and more hearts and minds also begin to change. The cycle never ends.
What am I called to do?
I have two major takeaways from this week’s Gospel. The first is to curb my own envy and competition and find joy in the fullness of humanity of every person around me. I will do this by cultivating gratitude through prayer and meditation and tuning my heart and mind to be fully present with others. The second is the realization that I have not taken advantage of the opportunities given to me to befriend the poor. I am not ready to invite strangers into my home or throw my own feasts, but in time I hope to be able to become more involved in the homeless ministry in my church. When I do, I will try to remember to approach it as a gift not from but for me, and to take the time to learn the names, hear the stories, and befriend the people.
How does this scripture speak to you? What are you called to do?
Jesus Unmasked is an invitation to join a search for the presence of the living Christ in scripture. The path of Jesus leads to joy and peace, but too often we see Jesus through the masks of our own limited perspectives. Masks of exclusive theology and violent cultural lenses obscure the truth: Jesus is Unconditional Love. We see Jesus unmasked when we allow him to unmask us, lifting the blinders of bias from our eyes. In the unmasked face of Jesus, there is hope, acceptance, and forgiveness that frees us from fear, that we may live into our fullest selves as reflections of God’s love. We welcome you to join us live on the Raven Foundation Facebook page.