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What’s the deeper message of the “lowly seats” parable?

DINNER
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The key is the nature of the Shabbat dinner.

I’m pretty sure humility is overrated, because so much about it is self-contradictory. Mostly, I suspect, that’s why the Bible sniffs at pride, a handier target. Often when humility does come up, as say, in St. Luke 14:7–11, it appears as mere political gesture. We’d call it virtue signaling today.

Jesus attends a Shabbat. This is the Friday night supper that marks the beginning of Sabbath observances. There is prayer, blessed bread and wine, and thanksgiving to Him “who nourishes the whole world in goodness, with grace, kindness, and compassion.”

At this Shabbat the guests make a scramble for the seats of honor. Jesus tells them a parable (at least Luke calls it a parable): Don’t take the best seat, take a low seat instead and wait to be called up to a higher seat, says Jesus. Take a high seat first and you will be humiliated when the host asks you to leave it and give way to someone else. 

Oops. Awkward, huh?

This advice, then: To avoid the embarrassment by being asked to take a lower seat, start with a lowest seat first. Spying lowly you way down there so beneath your station, your host may instead call you up higher (and send someone else lower, to your deserved satisfaction). And clever you, “you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.” Hooray.

Read more: It’s suicide to separate from roots and tradition, says Pope Francis

Honest, that’s not much of a parable, if it is a parable. Preachers usually present this as a straight-faced lesson on how to appear humble while saying little about being humble. It is hardly an item to show up any list of “what would Jesus do” things.

All Jesus is doing is quoting Proverbs 25:6–7: 

“Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.” 

What we have is a parable that isn’t a parable at all. It has every mark of political calculation and human foresight with a morality adage tacked on at the end: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

All Jesus has created is a market for the cheap seats. Guest will fight guest – “Out of the way; I’m more humble than you!” — trying to find a low seat suited to his high taste. If that’s all that is happening, then it is as I said a political gesture. This is how to emerge victorious in a social display of humility. 

But if this is a parable—a story with a hidden false bottom—then we need to look further, dig deeper.

But if this is a parable—a story with a hidden false bottom—then we need to look further, dig deeper.

The key I think is the nature of the Shabbat dinner. After Jesus’ proverbial lecture on humility as political gesture (I think I can hear the Christological voice of sarcasm as Jesus speaks, I really do), Jesus explains to his host: Next time, at the next Shabbat, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” must be your honored guests.

There’s an interesting guest list. These are the people (and their descendants) expressly forbidden by Levitical law (21:17–23) from making priestly temple offerings to the Lord. Moreover, in their poverty and in the misery of their physical incapacities, they cannot repay their host and have no hope of ever doing so. That seems to be something of the point, in fact the whole point for inviting them. 

The parable of who is called up higher is indeed deeply political, for Christ shatters the distinctions of class and creates the economy of salvation and puts us all in our place as beggars before the Lord.

The invitation to the table of Jesus is a call to a higher humility, for we know we cannot repay our host. We have not the means. We each find ourselves among “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” hungry supplicants with empty hands extended so the Lord may fill them. 

The weakness of our faith, seeing without clarity, all of us stumbling lame along the straight and narrow, struggling to stay within the lines—there is no reason for us to be called up higher. 

Yet for his own compassion he chooses to call us up to his Father’s love.

Read more: Pope Francis: Our false ideas about God prevent us from experiencing his mercy

Read more: Praying for humility when you love compliments

 

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