Humble and Hospitable
Success in life requires self-promotion. It also involves reciprocity. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you promote me, I’ll promote you. But there are dangers in both self-promotion and mutual back-scratching. They can backfire. You get something of this in the texts for this week. Both the reading from Proverbs and the gospel lesson speak of circumspection, recognizing your place, and not overstepping bounds. Standing in between these two texts, Proverbs and Luke, is the epistle of Hebrews, which commends a life of mutual love and hospitality. Humility and hospitality, two virtues that we would be wise to develop and nurture – not just so we can be successful in life, but so we can live out the promise of the life of faith.
As is often true there is more than one choice of texts from the Hebrew Bible. In addition to the Proverbs 25 passage, one could turn to Jeremiah 2:4-13, but it doesn’t fit the flow of the texts as well as does Proverbs 25. In many ways Jesus’ response to the jostling for the best seat in the house, simply restates the wisdom imparted by the earlier proverb. If you go to a party or a function where there are people of importance present, seat yourself at the back rather than at the head table. Don’t presume upon the host, and consider yourself of greater importance than is actually true. You don’t want the host coming to you and asking you to move back, because someone more important has arrived. Instead, start at the back, and perhaps the host, seeing your humility, will choose to bring you to the front and seat you among the people of importance. This is good advice, which we should all heed. Yes, we know that sometimes you have to do a bit of self-promotion if you’re going to succeed in life, but beware of the consequences.
If humility is one virtue imparted by these texts, the other is hospitality. Ancient society, like many non-western societies, put a great premium on hospitality. One of the stories that was often told suggested the possibility that the strangers who come into your midst, who knock at your door, might be angels or divine beings. So, you would be well-advised to treat the stranger, whether or not, they are angels, as if they are. That is the word we hear in Hebrews 13, a passage that covers a variety of issues as the sermon closes in a litany of does and don’ts. Don’t neglect hospitality to strangers – they could be angels. Remember, Lot welcomed strangers into his home, and they turned out to be angels. Abraham and Sarah also entertained angels, in fact the same ones that Lot and his family entertained. For Lot the visit was less of a blessing – since his neighbors were less than hospitable to the strangers, and that led to destruction (Gen. 19). As for Abraham and Sarah, the angels bore news of an impending birth, which would be a blessing to nations (Gen. 18:1-15).
There is a relationship between humility and hospitality. To be hospitable requires a certain degree of humility, a willingness to serve without any expectation of a return. Yes, it is true that the whole premise of hospitality in the ancient world was built upon reciprocity, but Jesus undermines that principle to a degree. He tells the listeners a parable, in which the one who invites to the party chooses to invite those who are unable to reciprocate – the poor, the lame, and the blind. Invite them without any expectation of repayment. In this you will find blessing.
The implications of these texts are many. They’re reminders of our call to attend to the needs of the stranger and the ones living on the margins – the widow, the orphan, the infirm, and the poor. Such people are not in the position of returning the favor. But, if we choose to live our lives in such a way that we lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, becoming a servant, we will be repaid in the resurrection. Then we shall be lifted up to sit at the right hand of the one who sits at the right hand of God. But in the meantime, there are still blessings that come from being circumspect and not presuming upon a host, but instead waiting to be invited forward. There are blessings as well that come from offering service to those who cannot repay. They may not be tangible, but they are there. May we be a blessing, even as we have been blessed.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.