Jesus was not a liar, but he was clever and profound
Last night I was part of a great conversation about the parables of Luke 14. We talked about parties, social stigmas, friendships, hierarchies, pride, commitments, and more. I found myself analyzing and wondering what exactly Jesus was saying in this section:
7When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It was mentioned that it seemed odd for Jesus to give people such a subtle way to exalt yourself. Basically, on the surface, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “Hey, if you want to achieve maximum recognition and honor, the smartest way is to be sly about it and place yourself at the place of least importance so ‘you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.’“
Two thoughts came to mind:
(1) This idea is false and it does not happen like this. As a matter of practical advice, Jesus’ words do not work very well for most day to day occasions. I believe I speak with authority on this, largely because I have tried this tactic and found it wanting. Like most people, I enjoy being liked, appreciated, valued, and praised; these are “warm and fuzzy color” kinds of things that most humans respond to positively. Like some people, I deal with pride and, even in moments of true humility, have a desire to be recognized and ‘reseated’ to a place of honor and recognition. But it does not always happen this way. Sometimes you can seat yourself in the lowest possible place – the place of least honor – hoping that someone will drag you out of the hole you jumped down into and nothing will happen. You will be left there grumbling and moaning on the inside while exuding a false-but-sometimes-genuinely-attempted air of humility.
I give Jesus a lot of credit because I think he knew these kinds of things happened or at least that they would happen to a person like me. He knew that my pride can run so deep and that my understanding of honor and recognition can be so shallow that, in my desire to receive honor, I might intentionally “humble myself” in the hopes that I am recognized and reseated at the head of the table. When this does not happen, Jesus’ words leave little with which to hide the ugly arrogance and pride that initiated such a convoluted and deceitful scheme in the first place. Sometimes true humility can be learned only when you are looked over and passed by for the seat of honor that you secretly planned to sit in all along.
(2) This idea is true and it does happen like this. Parables are profound because they operate on different levels. On a very human level, where pride and status reign, the words of this parable in Luke 14 seem odd or even untrue in that there is no societal rule or practice that actually moves people from seats of low status to places of high honor. We can expect this to happen “because Jesus said it would,” but it simply does not. Yet, on the kingdom/Vision of God level, I believe these words to be extremely true and trustworthy.
Though it may not be the case every time you take your seat that you are moved to reflect your ‘true status,’ the end result of God’s kingdom is that the humble – the truly humble – will be honored and those who seek power and prestige above all else - even if sought under a cloak of humility – will be humiliated.
The paradox of the parable is that Jesus offers a true statement that, due to its non-absolute/binding nature in the here and now, is also false. The truth of the parable points to a broader and richer picture of what discipleship looks like rather than a “How to Win Friends and Influence People” kind of self-help story. Selfish and prideful people will grovel in their selfishness and pride if they are caught in the parable’s surface level trap, illustrating the words of Jesus that will follow:
“Those of you who do not give up everything you have [including your desire for power, honor, prestige, and glory at any cost even if you make a mockery of the humble] cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33).