Saint James Fordham • Proper 17c • Tobias Haller BSG
When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, Friend, move up higher.
When I was a child, I was intrigued by the title of a book on my grandmothers bookshelf. It was Thomas Costain’s Below the Salt. To my childish mind it conjured up images that I would later learn had nothing to do with the meaning of that phrase.
My grandmother explained that in the Middle Ages — the time period in which the novel took place — salt was a expensive luxury in England, where it was hard to make salt from seawater, and it had to be mined. At dinners in the Lord’s manor, salt was reserved to the high table, where the Lord and Lady and other honored guests could reach it. The less favored guests sat at the lower tables — below the salt. So this odd turn of phrase came to describe people of a more humble class than the higher nobility.
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Just about every human society has some way of marking the high and the low — and everything in between. Even in a democracy such as ours many hotels will have a presidential suite; and at the Kennedy Center Opera House, there is still a presidential box — one of the best seats in the house. Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden have their special seats as well that separate the Who’s Who crowd from the rest of us who belong in the “who cares” crowd.
And even at weddings — such as the one we celebrated so joyously here yesterday — there are special seats assigned to certain participants and honored guests, and “general admission” for other guests.
And there are few things more embarrassing than discovering that you’ve sat in the wrong seat! This has been true from long before the time when Jesus used it as an example for having a proper sense of who you are — how important or unimportant in the scheme of things; and how it is better to take a lower place and be asked to come up higher, than pridefully to assume a higher place, and then be embarrassed by having to move down — perhaps below the salt!
Sometimes, as Joshua ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, notes, the put-down can from other people or even from the hand of God — and it can be dramatic and tragic, not just humbling. However much they try to avoid it, powerful tyrants eventually come to a lowly end, toppled from their thrones, plucked up and cast aside, destroyed to the foundations of the earth, even the memory of them erased. It’s a bit like the old cartoons of a little fish being eaten by a bigger fish, and that one by a bigger one, and on and on — and in one version I recall the biggest fish is followed by a whole school of little fish with hungry open mouths!
No doubt when he wrote Ecclesiasticus Joshua Ben Sira wasn’t thinking about fish, but about the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon. The Babylonian king raised himself too high, then lost his mind and lost his throne, and wandered like a beast of the fields, watered with the dew of heaven.
We have a more recent example in a former ruler of modern Babylon — which today goes by the name Iraq — who was rousted from his palace with the gold-plated bathtubs to end up hiding like a frightened animal in a spider-hole and finally dangle ignominiously on the gallows.
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The truth behind all of this is in our Gospel: those who exalt themselves will be humiliated, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus makes this teaching clear in his description of a dinner party: how embarrassing to have to be taken down a peg when you’ve sat too high up. And what an honor to be invited to take a better seat when you’ve taken a humble one.
There is, after all, a world of difference between humiliation and humility. Humiliation is a punishment that happens to you; humility is a virtue that comes from within you. There is a world of difference between the two, and it is a difference that Jesus lived to the fullest, for he knew both.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to a rich man, a Pharisee, one accustomed to sitting on the platform at dinner parties, the front row in the synagogue, the best seat at the town meeting. But Jesus was not such a one as this: he came to us as a humble servant, came to serve and not to be served, came to give his life as a ransom for many. He took the lowest seat, below the salt, the seat of humility.
But that humility was just what angered the proud whom he confronted. His humility wasn’t enough for those who took offense at him. Sometimes no matter how humble you are you will not be able to satisfy the proud. The humble place that Jesus took, assuming the likeness of a slave, was not low enough to satisfy the hearts of cruel and jealous men, and they connived to push him down lower, even into the grave, down below the level of the humble, to the depths of the humiliated.
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No, sometimes you just can’t be humble enough to please the proud. Sometimes, even though you take a lowly seat, someone will come by and try to make you move down even lower. I know that the name of the late Rosa Parks is one with which everyone here is familiar, but her story is well worth repeating in the context of today’s Gospel. Her refusal to give up her seat led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a major step in the slow battle towards civil rights in these United States of America — a battle I regret to say is far from over.
The reason her story resonates with today’s Gospel is the fact that she had not exalted herself. She was not sitting defiantly in the “whites only” portion of that segregated bus. She was humbly sitting in the first row of seats in the back of the bus reserved for people like her, in what they called “the colored section” — going home after long day of work as a seamstress. As she herself would later write, “When I sat down on the bus that day, I had no idea history was being made — I was only thinking of getting home.”
But as the whites-only section of the bus filled up, another white man boarded. So the driver told Mrs. Parks to move, to give up her already humble seat and move further back in the bus, which was already full. Well, she didn’t. The sheer unfairness of it all, the wrongness of it, filled her up to overflowing with the anger of righteous indignation — not pride, but true righteous humility that shines most brightly when it faces unrighteous pride. She was filled with the spirit of justice and courage, and remained humbly sitting where she was, not over-reaching, not proudly standing in defiance but humbly seated where she had every right to be. As she would later say with some humor, “Somebody had to take a stand — or, in my case — take a seat!” Now, you know her decision got her in trouble, and in the short run the proud unrighteous segregationists appeared to have won. But as all the little people, all the truly humble “below the salt” people, all the seamstresses and housekeepers and porters and janitors and taxi drivers and clerks and waitresses began to boycott the busses, to forgo even those humble seats in the back, and to walk or car pool or to offer free taxi rides so people could get to work, all those little fish finally swam on along and gobbled up that big fish after all, and working together the righteous humble brought down the proud mighty from their seat, and the laws were changed, and the busses desegregated.
As the truly wise man Joshua Ben Sira said so well, “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence.” In Montgomery Alabama, the nation of the humble triumphed over the nation of the unjust and the insolent and the proud.
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But not without trouble and pain first. Jesus’ refusal to do what the leaders told him got him in trouble, too. He too was accused of being too proud — when all the while he was simply being a dutiful Son of his heavenly Father, doing only what God had sent him to do for the good of the people. But the proud ones — the ones “watching him” to catch him up in today’s gospel — would not have it, and they sought his death, conspiring to bring him down even though he hadn’t climbed up high. And the Son of God was arrested, tried, and convicted, treated as a criminal, and crucified, died, and was buried. The same Son of God who came down from the highest seat of all, from his Father’s throne, through the humility of his humble birth and his humble life, went down into the lowest place of all, the humiliation of the grave, below the salt, below the earth, to the pit of death from which none return.
Or so it seemed to those who crucified him. This was to be the end of the problem for them. But we know it was just the beginning. For it was from the grave, from as far below the salt as you can go, from that lowest of all possible points, from the humiliation of death itself, that God exalted Christ and raised him up, and gave him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should humbly bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth[Phi 2:10] — the whole range of seats in the great stadium of creation, from the highest to the lowest, from the bleachers to the skyboxes, above, upon, and beneath the earth, suddenly all rising to their feet and then falling to their knees! And that, my friends, is the greatest stadium “wave” of all!
This is the victory of humility, the victory of justice and of truth, the victory of the one who took the lowest seat of all.
There is all the difference in the world between humility and humiliation. Our Lord suffered humiliation for our sakes, and we can exercise humility for his, falling at his feet and bending the knee, living our lives in humble service to those he came to serve. So that when he comes in power and great glory to judge and rule the earth, he may find us sitting in the humblest seats, kneeling to wash the feet of the ones we serve, and say to us each and every one, “Friend, come up higher.”+