On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. …….
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But 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.” (Luke 14:1 & 7-14 – NRSV)
In the Hellenistic literature, the meal table is a common setting for dialogue: “From the time of Xenophon and Plato, the Symposium became in effect a literary form; the eating and drinking provided only the context for sometimes serious and sometimes frivolous discussions of life. …. It is part of Luke’s presentation of Jesus as a philosopher as well as a prophet, therefore, to have him so often at table” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 225). Luke describes a very serious, even sombre scene here – Jesus is having the meal with “a leader of the Pharisees” and his fellow guests are “lawyers and Pharisees” (noted in the full text). Luke adds two other important details: “they were watching him closely” and it is the Sabbath. There is electricity in the air! In 11:37 Luke has already told us of another time Jesus sat down to eat with “a Pharisee”. There were lawyers present on that occasion too. It led to conflict and condemnations from Jesus. What will happen here?
Pharisees: According to Josephus (Ant. 18.1,2 § 11), the Pharisees were one of the three “philosophies” among the Palestinian Jews of his day; sometimes he calls them “sects” (haireseis, Ant. 13.5,9 § 171; cf. Acts 15:5). Their origin is to be traced to non-priestly interpreters of the Torah in the postexilic period; but they seem to have first emerged as an organized group in the Maccabean period, perhaps shortly before the time of John Hyrcanus (Ant. 13.5,9 § 171). The Greek name Pharisaioi is probably a transcription of Aramaic Pĕrīšāyê, “separated ones,” undoubtedly used of them by others who differed with them. It may have expressed a certain aloofness and avoidance of dealings with other Jews less observant of the Torah; for Luke’s evaluation of them, see Acts 26:5. They advocated a rigorous interpretation of the Mosaic Law, insisting not only on the observance of the written Torah, but also of the oral Torah, i.e. the tradition ascribed to Moses and the elders, which were interpretations of the written Torah propounded since postexilic times. These “Sayings of the Fathers” (cf. Mark 7:3) were intended to be a “fence for the Law,” guarding it against violation (Pirqe ʾAbot 1:1). Influenced by Hellenistic ideas of the value of paideia, these interpreters regarded knowledge of the Torah and its prescriptions and prohibitions as the mark and guarantee of piety. To be a holy nation, sacred and dedicated to Yahweh, was a goal of all Jews; but to achieve this by education and knowledge of the Torah was specifically Pharisaic. Meticulous observance of the Sabbath and feast days, of ritual purity regulations, of tithing, of dietary rules was their practice; their tenets numbered belief in human freedom under the control of providence, bodily resurrection, angels, the coming of a Messiah (see Pss. Sol. 17:23–18:12), and the ingathering of Israel and its tribes at the end of time (Josephus Ant. 13.5,9 § 172). Some of these tenets set them off from other “philosophies” among the Jews, such as Sadducees. See further R. Meier and K. F. Weiss, TDNT 9. 11–48; J. Neusner, From Politics to Piety (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 580-581).
In today’s Gospel – Luke 14:1 & 7-14 – we find a theme common to all four Gospels: Jesus in conflict with the religious authorities. In this instance, the point of conflict is humility. Jesus is in fact inviting his listeners – and us – to think of a radically new way of being human. Humility was not regarded highly in the Greco-Roman world: “Lowly mindedness or humility was regarded by Hellenistic moralists as a vice not a virtue” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 224). “Saint Augustine seems to have been the first to insist forcefully on the exclusive Christian character of humility, while denying that the pagan authors, whether Epicurean, Stoic, or Platonists possessed the concept. Even the greatest of the pagans, St Augustine said, disregarded humility because, he claimed, ‘humility comes from elsewhere, from the One who, being the Most High wished to empty Himself for us’” (André Louf OCSO, The Way of Humility, translated by Lawrence S Cunningham, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2007, 7).
When we read the Christian Scriptures we are struck by the fact that humility is taken for granted as being central to Christian discipleship. We cannot forget how counter-cultural it was – and indeed remains. St Paul, in citing an ancient hymn, gives us the key to understanding this uniquely Christian view of the human person: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …. (he) emptied himself” (see Philippians 2:5-8). This God, in whose image and likeness we are created, is a self-emptying God. The implication is that human personhood finds its very nature and fulfilment in self-emptying.
We could say that humility – from the Latin word humus meaning “ground” or “earth” – is walking in the truth of who I am. Who am I? Ultimately, I am a self-emptying being! I am fulfilled in serving others. I am most myself when I die to myself. I find my true identity in the Divine Ground/Soil. I am down to earth.
Contrary to the misrepresentations, true humility is liberating and affirming, it brings great joy and deep peace. St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) points out that “humility does not disturb or disquiet or agitate, however great it may be; it comes with peace, delight, and calm. …. if the humility is genuine, (it) comes with a sweetness in itself and a satisfaction that (you) wouldn’t want to be without. The pain of genuine humility doesn’t agitate or afflict the soul; rather, this humility expands it and enables it to serve God more. The other type of pain disturbs everything, agitates everything, afflicts the entire soul, and is very painful. I think the devil’s aim is to make us think we are humble and, in turn, if possible, make us lose confidence in God” (from The Way of Perfection, 39:2. Collected Works, (Volume 2), 189-190, ICS Publications).
Like faith, hope and love, humility is a gift. It is best prepared for by being honest with oneself – utterly honest. Grace will take care of the rest.