One of the most unpleasant characters I have ever met is fictional. The fact that I met him in a book doesn’t make him any less real or unpleasant. This person is notable for his cloying humility and obsequiousness, thin covers for his twisted ambition and greed. Words drip from his lips not like honey, but like high-fructose corn syrup. His name is Uriah Heep. Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield introduces us to this despicable man who never tires of pointing out his own ‘umbleness.
Whenever I think about what it means to be humble, Uriah Heep shows up to remind me what humility is not. But what is it?
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” we read in the letter to the Colossians (Colossians 3:12). How do I clothe myself with humility and not just cover my arrogance with a thin layer of flimsy humility fabric?
In the book of Micah, the prophet asks (Micah 6:8), “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” How does one walk humbly? What’s the right pace? What’s the right face? Do I lower my eyes or look ahead with humble confidence, whatever that is? Humility is tricky and elusive.
Jesus has been invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner. The other guests are watching him closely, but he is paying close attention as well to what they are doing. He notices how some guests choose the best seats, and he offers some words of wisdom:
When you’re invited to a wedding banquet, don’t walk in and sit in the place of honor. Somebody more distinguished than you may have been invited and you may be asked to move to the lower end of the table. Imagine the embarrassment. Rather choose a lowly seat, you know, one behind a column or near the kitchen entrance, and when the host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher!” You will be honored in the presence of all. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus sounds a little bit like Ann Landers, doesn’t he, giving advice on how to avoid being embarrassed at a wedding reception? Before you know it, he’ll be talking about napkins and the difference between the salad fork and the dessert fork. I am reminded of conversations I have overheard this summer at our house; young boys talking, with dread in their voices, about cotillion, about Mr. and Mrs. Manners teaching girls and boys how to be ladies and gentlemen.
So is humility about saying, “Thank you, Sir” and holding the door, saying, “After you, Ma’am”? Is it about being courteous and knowing the rules of social etiquette?
We could be tempted to think of Jesus as the ultimate teacher of how to be nice, if this were the only table conversation of his we knew. But he didn’t get called a glutton and drunkard for being nice at receptions, and nobody would have called him the fellow who welcomes sinners and eats with them if humility were about social etiquette. Jesus didn’t come to offer advice, and he didn’t get crucified for teaching people how to be nice.
Is he talking about politics, then? Is he teaching strategy – how to lay low and hold back until the moment is right? His words sound very similar to the wisdom of king Solomon recorded in Proverbs, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘Come up here’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince” (Proverbs 25:6-7). Is he telling us to curb our ambitions and to linger outside the lime light, waiting to be noticed, and when the moment has arrived, to step into the light, the envy of all the other contestants? I don’t know, that sounds a lot like Uriah Heep’s calculated self-effacement; humility as the ultimate technique of self-promotion.
What, then, does it mean to humble oneself? I suspect humility disappears the moment we make it our goal; it can only turn into false humility when we make it part of our ambition for greatness.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. Why do the guests desire the places of honor? Why are they so eager to identify and occupy the good seats? We know why: they have an image to cultivate, a position to maintain, a status to preserve. They can’t even relax once they have arrived in the places of honor, because they never stop wondering, “Am I projecting the kind of gravitas that comes with my social position? Am I being shown the kind of respect I deserve? Am I getting noticed by the people who matter?” It is as if they are cursed to live outside of themselves, constantly monitoring their performance and their place on the ladder.
Jesus isn’t talking about seating arrangements. He is talking about how we see ourselves. We want to know where we stand, how we are doing, how we measure up – always in comparison to others. We find our place in the world by competing for a better place in the pecking order. There are, after all, only so many seats at the head table, only so many seats in the front row, only so many positions at the top, and so we learn to live with constant comparison and unending competition, anxiously wondering about our place in the community.
In the ancient world, a dinner party was not just an occasion to hang out with family and friends. A dinner party gave wealthy, influential families and individuals an opportunity to stage and maintain their elite status. Getting one’s name on the guest list meant that one ‘had made it’ and had been accepted into the circle of those who mattered. Every dining room was a hall of fame, and those who didn’t have to worry daily about survival, worried about fame.
You invite me, and I invite you. You honor me, and I honor you. You introduce me to the people who can help me with my projects, and I introduce you to the people who can help you with yours. You invite my friends, and I invite yours.
That’s how it works, isn’t it? Jesus challenges the rules of the game. He grabs the dinner table and flips it over.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends and your rich neighbors. Invite those who can’t do anything for you. Invite those who never know where their next meal will come from. Lift up the lowly. Surprise the poor, the lame, and the blind. Open the door and invite Lazarus to sit at the head of the table.
Why would anybody do that? The biggest dinner party of all is the one where God is the host. And no one gets to sit at God’s table by out-competing the others. Anyone who gets to sit at God’s table does so solely because God delights in shouting, “Friend, come on in.” When Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, he performs the great banquet of heaven. There’s nothing we can do to get our names on the guest list, because the invitation goes out to all. Honor is neither taken nor achieved; honor is given by the host. The particular glory of life as God’s own is a gift. “Friend, come on in!”
We lift up the lowly because God has lifted us up. We surprise the poor, the lame, and the blind because God has surprised us. We open the door and invite Lazarus to sit at the head of the table because God has opened the door for us. We change our dinner rules, because Jesus has opened our eyes to see that we all have a seat of honor: we belong to the household of God.
The word invite rings out repeatedly in Jesus story of the great banquet and his words about our dinners and luncheons. The word invite rings out unceasingly in Jesus’ life because he embodies God’s invitation, “Friend, come on in.”
Your dignity, your honor, your worth are not the result of anxious striving and self-monitoring and comparing and competing. Who you are is rooted in God’s hospitality. And humility is everything that happens when you live out of that rootedness: You no longer worry about your status. You no longer live outside of yourself, worried about nothing but yourself, constantly monitoring your performance and your place on the ladder. Rooted in God’s hospitality, your attention is no longer drained by your need for recognition and affirmation; instead you become available to deliver invitations to the great banquet. And the invitations you deliver are no longer thinly veiled copies of your own agenda, but God’s word of friendship.
Isn’t that why we’re here? To be reminded of God’s mercy? To hear that voice saying, “Friend, come on in!” and realize, “You are talking to me, aren’t you?”
Isn’t that why we’re here? To forget the ladder and remember the table? To forget ourselves for a while and to remember that we are God’s own – chosen, invited, and honored? All of us rooted in God’s boundless hospitality?