Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
BCP - Proper 17 C - Sun 02 Sep 2007
The first reading we heard this morning has an interesting, almost tentative place in the Bible. We could open the Bible in a church of one denomination and find the reading. In another denomination we might find the reading, but under the name Sirach instead of Ecclesiasticus. In yet another denomination we might not find the book at all.
When we talk about “the Bible”, we generally think we’re talking about a pretty specific thing; a thing that has been the same across time and space. It might have different translations and perhaps some paraphrases, but it’s the same book - THE book... except it ain’t necessarily so.
This is more than just a tangential thought. We hear discussions now and then about the Bible that assume that it is the absolute, inerrant, unchanging word of God. But if we begin with the realization that “the Bible” refers to something a little different in a Presbyterian or Baptist church than in an Episcopal, Methodist, or Roman Catholic church, or an Orthodox church... then concepts of “absolute” and “inerrant” have to be tempered with at least a little humility.
I’m not suggesting anything about God’s ability to speak. I am suggesting that our ability to hear, record, comprehend, and transmit are never absolute and inerrant. I’m suggesting that we approach the Bible, and especially our understanding of the Bible, with a measure of humbleness.
And humility, or more precisely its polarity, arrogance, is exactly where Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, starts us in today’s reading. His book might have a tentative place in scripture, but his language is not at all tentative...
Arrogance is hateful to God and to people. Governments crumble because of injustice. The beginning of pride is the forsaking of God. God plucks the roots of the proud and plants the humble in their place.
Perhaps most astoundingly he declares that pride was not created for human beings. In other words, pride is inhuman, or as Biblical language would have it - abomination.
What is pride? Contemporary English is not always helpful because we can use the same word in so many different degrees. So lets play with the words a bit.
As a monk in the Order of the Holy Cross I have the great privilege of living in an extraordinarily beautiful place and I’m proud of that... I’m proud that we are able to share this place with so many guests. I am proud of the vast accomplishments that we have made in the past few years to make our buildings accessible and energy efficient. Is this kind of pride an abomination? I really don’t think so.
The kind of pride Ben Sira is talking about is clearly liked with arrogance. Arrogance... Now there is an interesting word. At its root, arrogance has to do with taking what is not ours to take. Arrogance is the act of arrogation. Say for example that I “arrogate” my neighbor’s car. In plain English we would call that stealing. I might “arrogate” food - and in fact I no doubt do - I have taken food that I do not need. Gluttony is a form of arrogance.
If I begin to believe that I am entitled to live in this beautiful and splendid place, rather than accepting it as an awesome gift, that is arrogance. I have taken God’s gift and arrogated it for my own.
Ben Sira has a very powerful message for us - as individuals... in our congregations... as a nation... Humility is what God calls us to. Arrogance is a destructive and ugly path - hateful to God and people.
Humility tells us that we are servants. Arrogance tells us that we are rulers. Humility speaks to us of justice. Arrogance temps us with wealth and privilege.
Arrogance and humility lead us right into the Gospel according to Luke. Of all the evangelists, Luke is particularly concerned with the poor, the humble, the outcasts, those who have no social standing - who have nothing to be proud of... nothing to be arrogant about.
In the passage we just heard, Jesus tells us not to take the seat of honor at a big occasion, but rather to take the lowly seat at the foot of the table. In addition we are not to focus our hospitality on the rich and fabulous, but rather on the poor, the lame, the blind... those who have no honor, no power... those who haven’t arrogated anything.
In other words Jesus is calling us to be humble and, furthermore, to hang out with those who are humble.
To my ears this etiquette lesson in Luke seems curiously low stakes. Take the seat that is lowly, because if you take the seat of honor and get bumped down, you’ll be embarrassed... OK... I don’t enjoy embarrassment, but what’s the big deal? In our society embarrassment has become a form of entertainment.
Doing something incredibly embarrassing and then going on TV to chat about it is a rite of passage for celebrities, politicians, sports figures... Oprah offers redemption to the upper classes and Jerry Springer offers it to the lower classes... The Romans had their lions, we have reality TV. Its hardly the end of the world.
Except in Jesus’ time it was closer to the end of the world. Honor, in that culture, was a limited commodity. Without honor you were nothing, and if you lost honor it could not be restored. Losing honor was permanent, like losing virginity. There was no Jerry... no Oprah... no quick trip to rehab... If you take the seat of honor and get dishonored, you will be dishonored.,. and you will stay dishonored.
So protecting honor is important and the way to protect your honor is to act rightly and hang out with other honorable people. So it’s a bit twisted for Jesus to tell us to protect our honor by acting like we don’t have much in the first place - sit in the humble seat. But it gets worse. Jesus says spend time with the needy, the poor, the sick, the outcasts. This is just perverse. This is the express way to loose honor.
So in Jesus’ world, if I want to protect my honor I have to act like I don’t have any in the first place and then do things that will make me explicitly dishonorable. Abandon my honor and I will be honored.
There is something else in the Bible with a similar ring to it. Those who would save their lives will loose them, but those who loose their lives will obtain eternal life.
So Luke’s seemingly low stakes etiquette lesson is really a very high stakes lesson in living the gospel.
Lets flip back to Ben Sira writing in Ecclesiasticus. Honor belongs to God. If I arrogate honor for myself and then work hard to protect it, I’m taking what is God’s and making it mine and in the process I’m separating myself from God. But if I follow Jesus and leave my self, my honor, behind, then I become part of the honorable kingdom of God.
Of course that sounds simple and good... but reality has a way of not being simple. And when things get complicated, good becomes much harder to sort out. How are we to figure out all the right answers so that we know what to do?...
But there is that fascinating word arrogance again... I can’t possibly figure out all the answers and it is arrogance to think I can or that I should. And God doesn’t call us to have all the answers.
Be humble and be with the humble. That’s all the advice we get from Jesus in today’s gospel passage. That’s what God calls us to.
Lord; help us to cast off the bonds of arrogance, the illusion of control, and the lust for wealth and power. Help us to give back the things we have arrogated, rather than to seek to protect them. Give us the joy of humble and contrite hearts. Amen.