We cannot confer honor upon ourselves; all we can do is accept the honor that God has already given us.
When you watch Jesus closely, you will quickly find that he is watching you. This is not a bad thing. But it can be decidedly unsettling — when you watch Jesus closely, you may end up finding more than you were looking for. That is what the religious leaders — religious leaders both lay and clergy, religious leaders both self-styled and appropriately styled — learn in today’s passage.
Jesus is going to a Sabbath meal at the house of one of those religious leaders. Why? Was he invited? Why was he invited? Did this religious leader invite Jesus simply to offer this overworked and underpaid, struggling young rabbi a meal, along with some fellowship and relaxation amongst some like-minded people during his hurried and overburdened life? Apparently not. Jesus was invited to give these religious leaders a chance to watch him closely.
And why do they want to watch him so closely? Because they feel moved to sit humbly at his feet and learn from him? Apparently not. They are watching him closely because, to put it bluntly, they are waiting, just waiting, for him to mess up.
What are they looking for, these religious leaders, these authorities both self-styled and officially styled? They are watching and waiting for this pretentious young hotshot to mess up, so they can denounce him, so they can expose him as a fraud and so raise themselves up as the true leaders with the true faith.
Jesus responds by watching them and waiting for them to mess up — and they do! They already have messed up; they messed up before they even began. What is it that you think you are doing, Jesus wants to know, attending this meal at the house of this prestigious personage? And you, my gracious host — what is it you think you are doing when you throw a party like this in the first place?
What do you think you’re doing? What are you really doing? What are you looking at? What are you looking for?
What are you looking for?
What are you looking for when you watch Jesus closely? What are you looking for as you make your way through life in general?
What does Jesus see when he looks at us? In today’s passage, Jesus watches, and he sees two sets of people: the guests at the dinner and those who invited the guests. When Jesus looks at the guests, he apparently sees people in a mad scramble to “one-up” one another, people literally elbowing one another out of the way so that they can get to the place of honor at the banquet.
What is it you think you are doing? he asks them. You can’t decide for yourself how “honorable” or deserving of honor you are! You can only let others decide how much honor you deserve.
So is Jesus, then, advocating a mad scramble for the lowest place? No — people who scramble and shove and elbow for the lowest place in hopes of being exalted end up looking even sillier than those scrambling for the highest place. Fact is, we can’t “humble” ourselves any more than we can “exalt” ourselves. We simply are not able or qualified to decide for ourselves how much honor we deserve, no matter how we go about it. “Honor” and “exaltation,” “praise” and “adulation” — and, for that matter, genuine humility — by their very nature, must be conferred by someone other than ourselves.
There is another audience here — those who gave the dinner party in the first place. Who are you inviting, Jesus wants to know, and why? What is it that you think you are doing? When you invite to your meal only those who can reciprocate in kind, what are you accomplishing? You are creating a closed system. You are not being generous or magnanimous — perhaps you never intended to be generous or magnanimous; perhaps you’re not remotely interested in sharing or giving or creating a world more hospitable and kinder than the one we’ve already got; perhaps you are only like the guests you see before you, scrambling and shoving for the highest place. If that is the case — what do you think you’re doing? Who is it that you are serving — other than yourself?
What are we looking for when we watch Jesus closely?
Why are we watching Jesus closely?
Perhaps “watching Jesus closely” is the problem to begin with.
Why is it that we do what we do — what do we think we are doing, when we do our “church thing”? What is it that we think we are doing, when we do our soup kitchens and our clothes closets, our potlucks and our spirituality groups and our church suppers? Even when we invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” why are we doing even that? Are we doing it because the world is watching, and we want to show them how good we are? Well, I have some rather unsettling news: The world doesn’t really care. They might glance at us and think something like “Oh! There they go again, those church people. What are they trying to prove?” And then they will go on about their business.
So why are we doing what we do? Are we doing it because we think Jesus is watching? Well — I have some news for us that is both good news and unsettling news. Jesus is watching! And what does he see when he watches us do our church thing? Does he see people scrambling for the highest place by scrambling for the lowest place? Does he see us doing our church thing only because we want to impress him, because we are so desperately anxious in our insecurity to hear the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant”? Does he see people working desperately to earn his approval; does he see nothing more than insecure, frightened, fearful people scrambling to exalt themselves — to make themselves feel good about themselves?
If that is the case — this parable is for us, as much as it was for those religious leaders, both lay and clergy, of so long ago. When you watch Jesus closely, you will quickly find that he is watching you. This is not a bad thing. But it can be decidedly unsettling — and this is also true when we are constantly watching Jesus out of the corners of our eyes as we go about our daily walk of faith. Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we doing what we are doing — whatever it may be — to earn approval, from Jesus or from the world?
If that is the case — we need to follow the example of Mary, in the story told a little earlier in Luke’s gospel, in Luke 10:38-42. Mary, we are told, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” — that is, until her sister Martha flipped out and said “Lord! Slap this woman into line and put her to work!”
If we are working away for the world’s approval, we need to stop. The world doesn’t care. In case you haven’t noticed, the world and the people in it don’t need us to set an example for them of working hard at whatever task. The world is quite capable of hard and single-minded work. That’s part of the problem, maybe most of the problem. The world isn’t interested in our example. What the world needs now and always is the kind of love that we see in Jesus Christ — love that reaches out, love that heals, love that looks for needs and meets those needs simply and only out of love, and not out of a selfish and insecure need for approval.
If we are working and toiling away with one eye on Jesus, trying to earn his approval — we need to stop. We already have Jesus’ approval. That’s what this “grace” business is all about.
Why is it that we are doing what we are doing? Are we looking to exalt ourselves? Are we looking to confer honor upon ourselves?
Forget it! We can’t! Honor can only come from others, and the only honor that counts can come only from God. We don’t have to work for that honor; all we must do is accept it as the freely offered gift that it is. All we can do for that honor, every day of our lives, is pause and sit — sit at the feet of Jesus, bask in the honor and the glory that God, in Jesus Christ, has already conferred upon us — and then get up and work with all our might at whatever it is that the love of God drives us to do.