But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’. Luke 14 v10
No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel … but puts it on a stand that those who enter may see the light. Lk 8 v16
Proverbs are irritating things. For every proverb that says one thing, there always seems to be another that says the opposite. ‘Look before you leap’ by all means, but remember that ‘He who hesitates is lost’. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’ – but ‘don’t bang your head against a stone wall’. Maddening. But maddening only if you hear such advice as a rule that applies to every situation in which decisions or perseverance are at issue. Perhaps the usefulness of such pairs of proverbs is that they prompt us to ask which of the two applies in the situation in which we find ourselves, that they raise questions rather than give answers. I have chosen two sayings of Jesus as our texts today because they are very much like these superficially irritating pairs of proverbs.
We are so used to hearing Jesus through a religious fog that we often don’t catch quite ordinary bits of sensible advice. Here, he points out that being presumptuous at a feast can lead to social disaster; better, less embarrassing, to wait to be invited to go to one of the more prestigious seats. Quite true: pushy people at a social occasion are irritating and deserve their comeuppance. But what does this have to do with ‘religion’? Not a lot, I think. Again, society is an unforgiving place on the whole; while it quite frequently finds a way to put down those who are unbearably presumptuous, it less often tries to advance those who simply wait to be asked to ‘come up higher’. Even the most able can wait a very long time with their light under a bushel before someone suggests that they bring it out so that it can shine usefully. So we should not wait. This too has little to do with religion and everything to do with fulfilling ourselves and contributing to the life of society. That these bits of advice are about society rather than religion does not make them relatively trivial. It is a major plank of Jesus’ platform that it is religious preoccupation that is relatively trivial; being a good neighbour is, in his view, of far greater importance than getting your ceremonies and sacrifices right, and in this of course he is taking forward the long prophetic tradition in Israel as well as heralding what we might like to think of as our modern approach to religious observance.
Traditional societies have a fixed social order; everyone ‘knows their place’, and not just at feast tables. The life of Jesus suggests that he would have had little patience with such rigidity; as a man of humble, provincial origins, he had no business going around preaching. And we know that rigid social stratification keeps some very able people in quite ordinary roles in life even as it brings some incompetents to positions of power and influence. But our so-called meritocracy is distressingly often nothing of the kind: it too often mistakes ambition for merit, and confidence for competence. Perhaps for us today part of the point of this bit of Jesus’s advice is to suggest that we should be aware of this danger and prepare ourselves to tell the truth to and about people who have talked their way to positions that are beyond their competence. It is a responsibility that we should not shirk; judgments of these kinds do have to be made, and made ‘prayerfully’, that is, with our whole selves engaged – our intellects, our intuitions, our imagination, our care for others. You may think it’s rather unlikely that such people will in fact begin with shame to take the lowest seat, but it’s worth a try.
Because put-downs come more naturally to most of us than invitations, we need always to be on the look-out for people who may need our encouragement if they are to fulfil their potential, whether in society, at work, in voluntary organisations, in creative endeavour, or in private life. Love comes into this, because love is present when we think about someone we know as the unique individual they are, and so come to appreciate aspects of their character that are not getting the use they deserve and, for that person’s fulfilment, need. So look around your circle of acquaintances: is there anyone who you think is ‘hiding their light under a bushel’? What might you do to invite them to ‘go up higher’? A word of praise for something they have done, perhaps? Or a suggestion of some life-shaping change they might not have dared to contemplate? Or maybe a request to do something they may wrongly feel is beyond them?
It’s important that we each keep an eye open for others who need to be put down a few places or to be encouraged to display their light. But we also need to be aware of our own behaviour, and in particular we need to remember that Jesus, in common with every dictionary of proverbs, gives what appears to be contrary advice. This is not because he’s confused; it’s because he knows that different people and different situations require different responses. We have to ask ourselves which of this pair of contrasting bits of advice is applicable in any particular situation we face. For people brought up with a dumbed down version of humility that means not being fully aware of your own abilities and desires, and always deferring to other people, it’s very easy to wait – and if necessary to wait for ever – to be asked to ‘come up higher’ and put your lamp on a stand where it can give light to the whole house. Better perhaps to err on the side of presumptuousness than on the side of such false humility; at least the world has a ready remedy for presumptuousness. Better still, though, to love ourselves enough to recognise our own abilities and aptitudes, humble enough to accept that they demand to be made good use of, and wise enough to understand that that will sometimes involve us in competition with other people – competition that can be managed within the framework of reciprocity and forgiveness that Jesus’s teaching encourages.