SJF • Proper 17c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host...+
In his comic novel, Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope paints a portrait of Victorian manners and morals. Everything in the various plot-lines comes to a head at a great indoor-outdoor garden party thrown by Miss Thorne — the elderly maiden sister of the master of the manor on the outskirts of Barchester. She has invited all sorts and conditions of people to this great event — the tenant farmers who work on her brother’s estate, the Bishop of Barchester (and his indomitable wife!) most of the clergy from the cathedral, and of course the new parish priest. She has also not spared to invite the local nobility, including, as Trollope notes, the assorted regional baronets and their baronettes.
Now of course this creates some difficulties, as Miss Thorne is well aware. She can’t possibly have all of these guests — gentry, nobility, and commoners — dining together at the same table, or even in the same space. This is the Victorian Age! And so she sets up two large tents — one for the gentry on the spacious lawn just facing the manor-house; and one for the farmers, on the paddock on the other side of a ditch normally intended to keep cattle from straying — which she hopes will keep the farmers and their families from straying too! And finally in her own drawing-room she plans to host the cream of the crop: the Bishop and senior clergy, and the local lord and lady.
She has not, however, properly reckoned with the ambitions of one of the farmers’ wives, Mrs. Lookaloft. She is one who has always presumed to be higher than her station — and in spite of the halfhearted efforts of Miss Thorne’s servants to prevent it, not only does she stray from the paddock to the lawn, but forces her way into the inner sanctum of the drawing-room with her two daughters — her husband, knowing his wife, wisely having chosen to be indisposed and unable to attend the whole event!
Now, unlike the passage in our Gospel today — no goes to her and tells her and her daughters that they are in the wrong room. That’s another aspect of the Victorian Age: there are very strict rules, and you are expected to know them: people are supposed to know these things, and if they have to be told, well, as Dame Edith Evans once said, “That just won’t do.” And so Mrs. Lookaloft blithely ignores all of the cold shoulders and gets to hobnob and rub elbows with “the quality” — happy for the elbows and oblivious to the chilly shoulders!
Meanwhile another tenant farmer’s wife, Mrs. Greenacre, is simply furious. She is out on the paddock where she belongs, but is furious that Mrs. Lookaloft is not there too. She is not so much angry that Mrs. Lookaloft has risen, but rather that she herself has remained low. And her envy seethes and boils. She is somewhat consoled when she hears, via a servant, that the Lookalofts pushed their way in and were not in fact invited, but she wants more. As Trollope says, referring to today’s Gospel passage, “Mrs. Greenacre felt that justice to herself demanded that Mrs. Lookaloft should not only not be encouraged, but that she should also be absolutely punished. What after all had been done at that scriptural banquet? ... Why had not Miss Thorne boldly gone to the intruder and said, ‘Friend, thou hast come up hither to high places not fitted to thee. Go down lower, and thou wilt find thy mates.’”
In short, Mrs. Greenacre wants to see the Lookalofts cut down, literally to be put in their place, and made to eat humble pie.
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Why is it that it is so much easier to see when other people are acting pridefully? In fact, why is it that one of the surest marks of one’s own pride lies in thinking that others are too proud. As with most faults, why is it easier to see other people’s failings rather than our own — to be oblivious to the fact that it is we who have tried to rise up too high, and that our disdain for others who are also rising comes from the fact that they may have risen higher or faster than we? Pride is an insidious sin, and however foolish we may think it makes others appear, we are often blind to our own foolishness, our own failings, on that score.
So what do we do about it? Jesus, of course, gives us the best advice — however high you think you may be, take the lowest place. Then, if in fact you rate as high as you think you should, the host will come and place you higher — and if not, perhaps you will learn something about yourself — that you overestimated, and are where you belong; that you’ve acted rightly and you are not so important after all. As I’ve said before, there is all the difference in the world between humility and humiliation: humility is something we can choose for ourselves, but humiliation is something that will happen to us if we choose to exalt ourselves higher than we deserve. It is better to eat a humble meal than have to eat humble pie!
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Let me close with another tale, an older one than Trollope’s account of the doings in Barchester. There was once, you see, a great monastery on the lands of a certain Prince. He had heard that the Abbot of that monastery was a good and wise and holy man, and decided to pay a visit. While he was there, a servant from the town who worked in the abbey, and who secretly despised the monks and the Abbot, whispered to the Prince that while the monks ate simple meals at their common table, in small portions, the Abbot secretly feasted every night in his own cell. And the Prince was troubled at this information and decided to find out for himself. Instead of retiring after the evening prayer he stationed himself near the Abbot’s cell. And sure enough, later that night, a light was struck in the Abbot’s cell and he could be seen through the window wolfing down food from a huge wooden bowl.
This was more than the Prince could bear, and opening the Abbot’s door he was about to pronounce a heavy accusation, when the Abbot shook his head and said, “Oh, m’lord, I am so embarrassed that you should see this.” The Prince nodded vigorously, and was about to pronounce a heavy judgment, when the Abbot continued, “It’s my monks, you see. They are so wasteful of the food set before them. Here, let me show you.” And he stepped the few paces to the wall of his cell, and slid a small panel aside, and said, “You see, I’ve had the drain from the monastery kitchen routed through here, and I’ve put in a filter here — you see — to recapture all that would otherwise be wasted down the drain. Just look,” pointing at the bowl, “at that perfectly good food going to waste.” And as he gestured at the bowl, the Prince could now see it was filled with fragments of gristle and corn and rice and half chewed bits of vegetables; and the Abbot said, “Would you like some?” Whereupon the Prince fell to his knees, and said, “No, Father, I simply wish to receive a blessing from a truly holy, humble man.”
To be humble and holy — that is what God calls us to. Let us not judge the success of others, or their rising to heights beyond which we think they ought to scale; above all let us not judge others — as the Prince was ready to judge the Abbot — but rather let us always seek for ourselves the place of the humble, the place that our Lord himself took when he came among us, choosing, as our opening hymn said, “an humble birth.” He will indeed call us up higher some day, higher than we can either deserve or imagine.+