More Than Good Advice [or] Why Jesus Gets Killed, Pt. 2

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

If there was ever a gospel reading that invited a polite yawn, this might be it. I mean, goodness, but Jesus comes off in this scene as a sort of a progressive Miss Manners.

The first half seems to be common sense good advice — how much better to present yourself as humble and be invited higher than run the risk and embarrassment of appearing arrogant. The second half of the “parable” turns the focus of the etiquette conversation from guest to host and suggests that hosts should invite the outcast rather than the popular. Okay, so this is a little more progressive. But on the whole, I still feel like we should all say a collective “ho-hum” after hearing this reading and move on.

Except…. Except I think there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Etiquette, after all, is not simply about manners in the ancient world; it’s about honor and shame and social position and political standing, and these things matter more than just about anything in Jesus’ day. So he’s not simply giving good advice (even if the lectionary’s semantic pairing of the two verses from Proverbs would induce us to think so). Rather, he’s turning convention on its head. He’s challenging the status quo. He’s inciting something of a social revolution. And for all these reasons he’s inviting the death sentence he eventually gets.

I know this may sound a little far fetched, but hear me out. Because I suspect that we humans are just insecure enough — and that life is just tumultuous enough — that there are few things we crave more in this topsy-turvy world than a little order. We want to know where we stand, how we’re doing, how we measure up. And given how small we feel — and, for goodness’ sake, really are — in comparison to the vast cosmos of which we are apart, more often than not we seek that sense of order by comparing ourselves to others. This is why social pecking orders are so important. Love them or hate them — or both — it’s rare that we’re not keenly aware of, and just a little invested in, the pecking order of the various groups we’re apart of.

And so here comes Jesus telling the guy who’s invited him to his home for supper — how gauche! — and who also just happens to be a leader of the Pharisees, that his (and our) pecking orders aren’t worth squat. More than that, Jesus is inviting this guy (and us) to defy the pecking order, to actually turn it on its head.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the reason Jesus gets killed is because he forgives sins, and by forgiving them implies that we need forgiveness. But I think in this week’s reading we stumble upon another reason Jesus gets killed: he dares not only to stand outside the social order of his day; he dares not only to call that social order — and all social orders — into question; but he also says these things are not of God. Jesus proclaims here and throughout the gospel that in the kingdom of God there are no pecking orders. None. Zero. Zilch.

And while that sounds at first blush like it ought to be good news, it throws us into radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s grace alone. We can’t stand, that is, on our accomplishments, or our wealth, or positive attributes, or good looks, or strengths, or IQ, or our movement up or down the reigning pecking order. There is, suddenly, nothing we can do to establish ourselves before God and the world except rely upon God’s desire to be in relationship with us and with all people. Which means that we have no claim on God; rather, we have been claimed by God and invited to love others as we’ve been loved.

While writing Making Sense of the Christian Faith this past spring, I was surprised that what emerged as the unifying theme of all Scripture was God’s profound interest in two kinds of relationship: the relationship we have with God, and the relationship we have with each other and creation. You can’t, of course, separate these two — that is, you can’t claim much of a relationship with God if you’re relationship with the people around you stinks. But that works in reverse, too. As we see in today’s reading, precisely because we have been invited into relationship by God — because, that is, God has conferred upon us freely a dignity and worth we could never secure for ourselves — we are free to do the same for others. We are free to put them before ourselves, to lead them to seats of honor, to invite them to be our dinner guests, not because of what they can do for us, but because of what has already been done for all of us.

It’s a new humanity Jesus is establishing, a new humanity that has no place for our insecurities and craving for order. Which is why it’s frightening and why those invested in the pecking order — which, of course, includes all of us — will put him to death. But this is Jesus, God’s Son, and he will come back, lifting his scarred hands in eternal blessing and benediction, inviting us to a new vision and way of being where there is no first or last, no honor or shame, only each other, bound to one other in God’s abundant love and grace.

Thank you for showing me this God, this love, this grace, Working Preacher. Sometimes it frightens me, because I wish so desperately that I could be just a little bit in control of it all. But after the death of relinquishing my illusion of control, oh how wonderful the new life of Christ’s new humanity is.

Yours in Christ,