Pastor Adrianne Meier
21 May 2023 — Seventh Sunday in the Season of Easter
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Humiliation and Exaltation
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 siblings 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.”
In the mid 1980s, Phyllis Trible gave a series of lectures titled “Texts of Terror: Unpreached Stories of Faith.” She tells and retells four horrific stories from scripture of brutality and violence with women as victims: Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed women who the story calls a concubine, and the daughter of Jephthah—that haunting story we heard on Good Friday. Trible was inspired to record and explore these stories when reading similar stories of brutality in the news. She aims, she says, to see the telling of them as a “trinitarian act that unites writer, text, and reader in a collage of understanding.”
I was thinking about Trible’s work in part because we have and will engage some of these stories this year. To tell these stories is to risk, on the one hand, revictimizing those among us who know too well the violence that humans wreck on the bodies of others. But to tell these stories is also to invite us to sit with the victims of violence in the uncomfortable reality that we do not entirely know how God will redeem our sadistic brutality.
I was also thinking about Trible’s work because, in reality, Scripture is regularly weaponized against those deemed low, outside, and other. Beyond the texts of clear violence, even fairy-tale like parables with obvious morals like we read today are used to silence, demean, and devalue others. The command that Christians humble themselves has been unfairly and unequally placed upon the shoulders of women, people of color, and queer folk. It has been used to reinforce the idea that one must wait one’s turn, or that the call of God is dictated by some few verses from Scripture taken out of context. That Scripture has been used to call names, to constrain, to destroy anyone who deviates from some moral order cooked up by those who already have the upper hand. The reality is that humility is a tool the empire—and, indeed, power writ large—wields in order to silence and assimilate. Neither forced nor faux humility have a place in the kin-dom of God, but God prepares a place for all to belong and for those who have humiliated and demeaned and all-but-destroyed to shine in the light of God’s glory.
Today, Jesus tells this parable while dining at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. They… run in the same circles, but he certainly hasn’t made friends with the Pharisees. By this point, he regularly manages, instead, to offend and chagrin them with every single word. It is complicated between them—the Pharisees recognize in his words the kinds of things that the Empire won’t like, subversive words that challenge power and threaten to upend the fragile structure of occupied existence, a structure they feel obliged to maintain, not to add further oppression, but in order to protect the people. So they both try to warn him that Herod is pursuing him and they try to trap him in his words to expose him before the people so they will go away. Crowds are dangerous to occupying forces. And, generally, Empire’s preferred method of crowd control is swift and complete violence: use a show of force and bring the people low.
So, that’s the context. Home of a Pharisee, in the shadow of a brutal regime. So, when Jesus is talking about humility, we’re so used to what he says here that we have lost the metaphor, he’s exaggerating—being hyperbolic. We think of humbleness as a synonym for modesty, but it isn’t. It isn’t: Aw, shucks I didn’t do that much. Jesus is not Midwestern. What was it Garrison Keiller said about the people of Lake Woebegone about not being too proud? Yeah, it isn’t that.
It isn’t a humble brag, which is, of course, a brag. And it isn’t making yourself look lower than you are so as to cause less trouble. It isn’t making yourself smaller so others are more comfortable. We are talking about humiliation, about abasement, about being painfully brought into submission. Jesus is overstating what happens when you take too high a place at the table, but he’s doing it in order to expose the Empire and its tools. The Empire uses humiliation and the threat of humiliation as tools to silence dissent. To keep everyone in their place.
Humiliation is used to expose people as outside of the norms of society—norms that benefit power and maintain oppressive systems—and, at its worse, humiliation works to render people who are outside invisible. Humiliation removes their stories from the canon, their images from picture books and school library shelves. Humiliation takes away necessary medical care. Humiliation calls names and abandons people to float in a dingy on the sea with only hope that the sun might yet dawn tomorrow and your small children with you might live to see it. Humiliation makes the prospect of facing each day agonizing.
When Jesus says the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted, he isn’t talking about switching seats at the potluck. He is condemning the humility inflicted on the people God loves in order that power might be maintained. He calls the Beloved Community, he calls us, Beloved, not only to a different future, but to a different present. Not humiliation, but restoration. Jesus doesn’t want—Jesus doesn’t allow us to wait with only pie-in-the-sky hopes, but he says we should lift up the lowly right now. That at this banquet, this meal which is a foretaste of the feast to come, at this feast a place is prepared for everyone. A feast that restores those cast out, feeding souls, returning dignity, raising in glory. There is a place in God’s kin-dom (and, by the grace of God, there is a place, here, at St. Thomas) …there is a place for you, for all, here not because you fit in, but because it wouldn’t be the same without you. There is a place for you here that values your voice, your gifts, who you are deep within.