Beyond Customary Arrogance

Scripture Readings

Today’s gospel is not about table manners. Jesus didn’t talk about such things. He was always much more interested in inner attitudes than in outward behavior. It’s interesting that Luke places Jesus’s discourse in the context of a meal hosted by one of the leading Pharisees. The Pharisees, you’ll remember, were deeply concerned about obedience to the Law of Moses as demonstrated by its outward observance. Jesus uses the occasion of this meal to present a two-pronged lesson—one aimed at the invited guests, the other aimed at their hosts.

Jesus had issues with the Pharisees partly because of their focus on Jewish manners and customs. All manners and customs derive from a certain arbitrary set of social expectations. We’re encouraged to manage our behavior based on these accepted norms and standards. We assume that these guidelines are the “right” way to do things. They’re usually the “right” way to do things because that’s the way our forebears did it. Many times, the reasons why we do these things have been lost or forgotten. Do you know why soldiers salute officers? The soldiers are actually raising the visors on their armor helmets so that the officer can identify them. They do that today even though, without a full suit of armor, it makes no sense.

How often do we do something because that’s the way it’s done? Like saluting an officer, we take these things for granted. We don’t question why, and we even feel indignant when we catch other people flaunting these customs. Don’t we feel guilty when we catch ourselves flaunting them…or when someone else points out our faux pas? We carry this attitude with us into our spiritual lives. We do things because we believe we’ll get some benefit out of doing customary things. Consider the novena. A novena is nine sets of prayers. It can be nine prayers or nine days of prayer. Why nine? Nobody knows. The repetition of nine was unknown in ancient Israel. But, for some obscure reason, the ancient Romans held nine days of mourning after a death. Could that be the source of our novenas? Maybe. One thing’s for sure, unless you’re a numerologist, there’s nothing magic about the number nine. Yet people still do it. My point is that people pay a lot of attention to customary ways of doing things while often ignoring underlying attitudes. That’s what Jesus was talking about in the gospel today.

As I mentioned, Jesus never taught about manners and customs—even religious ones. He only taught about the Kingdom or Reign of God. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God isn’t made up of dos and don’ts. It’s made up of relationships. All relationships—therefore the foundations of the Kingdom of God itself—are three-dimensional. The first dimension of relationship that constitutes the Kingdom of God is our relationship with ourselves. We call it living authentically. As T. S. Elliot wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”[1] The second dimension of relationship that makes up the Kingdom of God is our relationship with others—with other people and with the whole of God’s universe. That includes animals, plants, and the earth itself. It’s a relationship based on equality and respect. The third dimension of relationship that establishes the Kingdom of God is our relationship with God himself. It’s the grace of God that transcends our other relationships and makes them sacramental. We establish our relationship with God through them in faith. There is no Kingdom—no relationship with God—without a healthy relationship with ourselves and with the world.

So, the lesson Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel is all about humility. Humility is clearly not about humiliation. It fact, in this very teaching, Jesus warns that unless we are humble, we will be humiliated. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled.” True humility can be defined as a right relationship with yourself, with the world, and with God. In fact, humility is a right relationship with reality.

When you come right down to it, there is only one thing you must understand about God: You are not he. What does that mean? It means that the kingdom and the power and the glory are not yours. You are not the creator of anything, nobody owes you deference, and you are no one’s savior or redeemer—including your own. It means that you are a debtor—that everything you are and everything you have has been given to you. You took nothing into this world, and you will take nothing out. You are owed nothing, and you owe everything. That’s humility.

In effect, what Jesus is teaching is a very simple but profound lesson. As debtors, we are not in a position to demand anything from anybody. We cannot demand that anyone—including God—acknowledge the honor due to us. If they do grant us any sort of recognition, it’s a free gift for which we should be grateful. We cannot pretend that anyone—including God—might be in our debt. There is no quid pro quo in God’s kingdom. We have no right to say to anyone—or to God—“Look what I did, or look what I gave up for you. Now, what are you going to do for me?”

It’s way too easy to fall back on customary behaviors—even behaviors like prayer and the liturgy—and think we’re doing enough by simply meeting what we consider to be our obligations. Yet aren’t we people who long to be a part of God’s kingdom? The attitude that says, “that’s enough to get by” just won’t cut it. Relationship-building is hard work. It’s demanding work. It’s humbling work. Only by building healthy and realistic relationships with ourselves, with the world, and with God, regardless of the cost can we ever hope to receive the fulfillment of the promise of God’s kingdom: the promise of peace, the promise of love, the promise of joy today, tomorrow, and always.

[1] T. S. Elliot, Murder in the Cathedral.

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