The story about the place of honour at the wedding feast seems, of itself, to be merely worldly advice; indeed it seems -- again of itself -- to lead to a rather hypocritical semblance of humility with the subject publicly choosing the lowest place whilst not only inwardly thinking himself worthy of a higher place, but indeed planning to receive honour in the sight of the other guests on being called higher by the host. And yet, Our Blessed Lord uses such worldly scheming as a parable for heavenly truth and experience.
This, first of all, teaches us that our basic human attitudes and feelings are orientated towards the good ... that our human nature is not fundamentally vitiated. Though we are weak and ignorant, our human nature is by no means totally corrupted, nor is our natural sensitivity without a measure of spiritual awareness. We have been and are made in the image of God, and this nature of ours is deeply disturbed by sin which, fundamentally, does not suit us.
The story told by Jesus about the natural embarrassment one would feel on being dislodged from the highest seat and sent to the lowest, is concerned not only with the resulting public humiliation, but also with the very intimate and morally good response of deep embarrassment on being forced to recognize one’s original and wrongful self-exaltation by unjustly arrogating the place of honour at the banquet table.
Human nature is made for God and can at times warn us of the presence of sin – something opposed and foreign to our true good -- when our explicit thinking is unable or unwilling to detect or recognize such a presence. For example, many young people will instinctively feel embarrassment or even a certain fear at the first wrongful sex activity: their good human nature warning them even when their minds and consciences are not sufficiently aware or enlightened; and how, indeed, can they subject themselves to their very first experience of dangerous drugs leading to hitherto alien experiences with unknowable personal consequences without instinctive trepidation? Adults also may make ‘faux-pas’ or gaffs in public and feel intense embarrassment as a result; and often enough, such feelings are not merely due to an anticipated loss of face, but also from the awareness of having originally spoken foolishly out of personal vanity, or fulsomely in a quest for human acceptance and praise.
Human nature is, I repeat, still good and sensitive enough to give authentic warning signals -- truly, intimations of immortality -- to our minds and their explicit thinking. Unfortunately, however, we can so quickly learn to resist and confuse our residual integrity, fighting against or even rejecting our instinctive modesty and honesty, with the result that even prostitutes and murderers, thieves and traducers, become hard-faced as the Scriptures and daily-life in the world today tell us, and they will say, ‘Where is our sin; what harm are we doing?
But why, after wrongly choosing the highest place at the feast would the person concerned have to betake himself to the lowest seat of all? Because, all the other seats were perhaps taken? It may be. However, it may be also that Our Blessed Lord has adapted the real-life situation somewhat in order to fit it for its present function as a parable of heavenly truth. For, before God we cannot in truth say that we are more worthy than anyone else: first of all, because we cannot – indeed, often will not -- recognize the sin in our own lives, and secondly because we can never penetrate the hearts of others. Therefore, the only attitude for a conscientious Christian is to take the lowest seat of all. For greatness in the Kingdom of God is determined not by our opinion of our own worth or that of anyone else, but by God’s judgment, as St. Paul says:
With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord Who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, Who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
This part of our Gospel passage for today is rounded off by a general statement which seems to have been a favourite saying of Our Lord:
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.
Pride, self-assertion in ordinary human society is both bad manners and bad policy, but in the Kingdom of God it is totally inadmissible. There, ‘pride goes before a fall’; there, there is only kind of privilege and dignity: the kind that comes to those who do not seek it, but are content to serve God and man in love and humility. The advice given in our Gospel reading about who to invite to your parties, is not meant to be exclusive of anyone, rich or poor, close friends or chance passers-by; the hospitality advised by Jesus is one which seeks to give generously, not to get surrepticiously. To all who in need -- and the rich can be in need also – we should give, if our concience calls and as our conscience guides; give, that is, in generous simplicity not with calculating discernment.
To close, let me offer you a story, from the Desert Fathers, of one who knew how to give when faced with need and how to humble himself in his giving:
Before Abba Poemen’s group came there, there was an old man in Egypt who enjoyed considerable fame and repute. But when Abba Poemen’s group went up to Scetis, men left the old man to go to see Abba Poemen. Abba Poemen was grieved at this and said to his disicples, ‘What is to be done about this great old man, for men grieve him by leaving him and coming to us who are nothing? What shall we do, then, to comfort this old man?’ He said to them, ‘Make ready a little food, and take a skin of wine and let us go to see him and eat with him. And so we shall be able to comfort him.’ So they put together some food, and went. When they knocked at the door, the old man’s disciple answered, saying, ‘Who are you?’ They responded, ‘Tell the abba it is Poemen who desires to be blessed by him.’ The disciple reported this and the old man sent him to say, ‘Go away, I have no time.’ But in spite of the heat they persevered, saying, ‘We shall not go away till we have been allowed to meet the old man.’ Seeing their humility and patience, the old man was filled with compunction and opened the door to them. Then they went in and ate with him. During the meal he said, ‘Truly, not only what I have heard about you is true, but I see that your works are a hundred-fold greater’, and from that day he became their friend.