The City of the Living God

Most readers of this column have been in a position of authority at some time, I’m sure; and some of us, this writer included, enjoy a constancy of authority because of education, ordination, position or wealth. Though we might not speak of it often, even quietly to ourselves, it is a delight to have honor and prestige. This delight is not denied by Jesus, but in a parable found in today’s readings he turns it on its head.

To understand the parable, we must understand the function of honor and shame, not just in ancient Palestine, but in our own lives today. It is true that honor and shame function differently in our day than in Jesus’ day, but there is something profoundly human about our need for the one and our aversion to the other.

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Jesus uses two examples from a banquet to illustrate our desire for honor and our loathing of shame, yet even as he does this, he recalibrates the meaning of both. In the first example, he instructs his hearers not to seek seats of honor at a banquet, since they might be shamed if someone with greater honor appears and demands his rightful due. In the second example Jesus encourages his audience to seek out the weak, the poor and the lame for their banquet, not their friends and relatives, since to invite those nearest and dearest just leads to reciprocation, a repayment of hospitality in the here and now. The recalibration comes in learning the true source of honor and shame and the true means of repayment.

The first example Jesus offers does not deny the desire for honor or the longing to avoid embarrassment, but he suggests that humility is the best path for both outcomes. Instead of reclining “at table in the place of honor” at a banquet and then being humbled when “a more distinguished guest” arrives, Jesus instructs that “when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.”

Ben Sira echoes this point: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” People do appreciate humility—not abject self-negation or self-hatred—because it does not place itself at or as the center of attention, seeking to have all needs met by others or ignoring the claims of others.

This remains suitable advice for those embarrassing dinner party moments even today—just consult Miss Manners—but Jesus’ point lies deeper. He says that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility will save you from embarrassment today and might even lead to a higher position at the banquet, but the exaltation Jesus is speaking of has to do with the Messianic banquet at the end of time—that is, places at table in the city of the living God.

Why this is the case can be seen in the second example Jesus gives. Jesus offers the strange advice—imagine Thanksgiving or Christmas—not to invite “your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.” But “when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus instructs us to expand our notion of God’s family to include those most in need of food, those most in need of honor since shame has been forced upon them.

True honor is found in humility, and true humility is located in seeking the needs of others, not one’s own. Honor might never be gained in this world for seeking out the poor and the needy, and repayment might come only in the new age, when honor and shame, like poverty and wealth, are burned up in the glory of God. At the banquet in the city of God, all sit in positions of equal rank and all share in the grace that reveals us all to be members of God’s one family.

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