Now, I recently started watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix. It’s a historical crime drama about a ruthless gang making a name for itself in 1920’s England.
The leader, Tommy Sheldon, is a twice decorated war hero whose life is a delicate balance between his pride and humility. He knows the more successful and powerful he becomes, the prouder he gets. And the prouder he gets, the easier it is for people to knock him down a few pegs.
Now, pride is something we all need from time to time. It can be the one thing that gives us the strength to face hardship and adversity. But it can also weaken, or blind us because, more often than not, it puts one’s focus only on one’s self. It makes a person believe they are more important than others. In contrast, humility is a low view of oneself. It sets aside the ego to make room for others.
When we possess a humble heart, we are better able to see others for who they are…be it good or bad – which, in the case of Tommy Sheldon, is a good thing. What’s the old saying? Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
...For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke tells us that Jesus is invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. A lot of people are gathered there, perhaps to be close to Jesus, or to simply keep a close eye on him.
You might know that the Pharisees were known for their meticulous knowledge of the law and traditions. And they always loved a good theological debate. Last week, they argued with Jesus about healing on the Sabbath. This week, it’s about who sits where.
In ancient Mediterranean cultures it was common for the most prestigious people to have the positions closest to the host. This was the seat everyone wanted. Because we all seem to have a self-worth that says we should be the one sitting there.
Watching the guest jockey for this position, Jesus tells a parable, a story that everyone could understand. And the moral of this story is simple: Don’t be so quick to grab the best seat in the house. Instead, move to the seat no one wants and wait to be invited to the seat of honor.
This is the equivalent of say mid-level executives fighting for the corner office. Like Thomas Merton once said, “People spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top they discover the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Our pride tells us to worry about what to wear, what to drive, where to live, who to socialize with. It convinces us that we can buy our way up this ladder.
Like those pushing and conniving to get the best seat at the table, this action sets most of us up to fail. Even Tommy Sheldon knows it’s better to be humble, then to let someone humble and humiliate you.
As faithful people, we should know that first, we are all equal in the eyes of our Lord. And second, if you don’t want to embarrass yourself, then let go of your sense of self-worth. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is not just a lesson about table manners. Nor is it practical advice to avoid embarrassment. Jesus is teaching us about the power of humility.
While self-promotion might be the accepted way to get ahead in the world, humility is the way to be blessed by God.
Like Whitney Rice notes, “it’s not the system that needs fixing. It’s us. It’s our pride, our exalting ourselves that eventually leaves us humbled and humiliated.” To her point, if we can let go of our pride and stop trying to get a leg up on others, then we will have the space in our hearts to lift each other up.
Jack Kornfield tells a story about a man who went searching for the meaning of life. After several long years of searching, he comes to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invites his visitor into his humble home and begins to serve him tea.
He fills the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then keeps pouring as the tea overflows onto the floor. The man watched until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.”
The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions, and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”
Jesus reminds us that a humble heart is one that is empty of pride and all the junk that goes with it. So, what might that look like?
In his letter to the Philippians churches, Paul tells us to, “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bend...” (Phil. 2:5-10a).
To follow Jesus, is to mirror Jesus in all that we do. Beginning by emptying ourselves like he did…no matter the cost to our egos. And this is where the real challenge is.
We all know how painful it is to let go of the things that give us our strength and self-worth. But the truth is, it only takes a little faith, putting trust in God’s promise. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Turning his attention from the guest, Jesus now speaks directly to the host and tells another parable; making this point: “Next time you throw a fancy dinner party, make sure you invite those who never get invited out – those who can’t return the favor.” In essence he’s saying, “The ones no one puts on the guest list are the ones who deserve the seats of honor.”
Such a humble action not only allow one to be a blessing now, but also allows one experience a greater blessing later. Staying humble does more than keep your pride in check. It keeps us close to God’s heart where we are able to see God in the face of the least of these.
Jesus is teaching us to empty and open our hearts to be filled with God’s blessings now,
so we can be the presence of God’s blessing for those who need to experience it.
A humble heart provides a way for us to share the gospel of grace and mercy to people who may not have ever received it or known about it.
In the space between our pride and humility, our goal should not be focused on attaining a posture or position of power. It should be about opening the doors to the banquet hall and inviting everyone in, so everyone gets a chance to sit with Christ, and be in the presence of God’s glory.
Just as God blesses our hearts, so too must we be a blessing to others through acts of compassion and love.
To quote Henri Nouwen, “Jesus’ words were his action, his words were events. They not only spoke about changes, cures, new life, but they actually created them."
Jesus embodied what he taught, and he taught what he embodied. It’s in this space of Anamesa, Christ moves us closer to God’s heart where we can love, heal, forgive, and bless others.
We can set aside our ego, pride and needs, trusting in God’s promise of a greater blessing that awaits us at a later time. By then it won’t matter who we know or where we sit. Because our self-worth is not determined by location or social status. It’s based solely on the One who loves everyone at the banquet. Including you and me.
And that, my friends, is something I think we can all take pride in.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Nouwen, Henri. You Are The Beloved. (New York: Convergent, 2017).
Rice, Whitney. What Seat Do You Choose. August 28, 2016. epsicopalchurch.org (Accessed on August 26, 2022).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”