This week we are challenged to practice generosity through the practices of humility and hospitality.
Jesus, teach me to humble myself and make space for others.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Several weeks ago, we discussed how God invites us to participate with him in turning the kingdom of man “rightside-up.” The systems and structures of our current world are totally out of alignment with what God desires for humanity, and one of the most powerful tools he has given us to join him in that rightside up movement is generosity. Last week, we started a journey through practices of generosity by discussing the practice of blessing, giving away the words of blessing to others in the same way that God has given that blessing to us.
I hope that during the past week week you had a few moments to practice blessing with the people you encountered. In fact, if you did I would love to hear the stories of what it was like and what you learned. Blessing is not a practice we are used to, and it may have been a bit awkward for you to jump in to. But the practice of blessing was a great place for us to start this journey of generosity, because despite the awkwardness, blessing only costs us a brief moment of time and a few uncomfortable moments.
Today’s passage of scripture is an invitation to take another step on the path of generosity and to stretch a bit further. If we want to grow in Christ and practice His way of life, then the teaching Jesus gives us today is a bit more uncomfortable. This kind of generosity actually costs us something. But it is not a cost without a benefit. This practice of generosity is a bridge, a way further up and further in. If we’re willing to take this step, our lives will begin to look more and more like the rightside up kingdom, rather than the upside down kingdom of man.
The story Jesus tells in Luke 14 is not difficult to understand. In contrast to the past few weeks of teachings and parables, this week’s message is pretty straightforward. In other places in the gospels, Jesus teaches in parables that are really hard to understand, and even the disciples get confused. These two parables are simply stated, real-life scenarios that we are all familiar with: where to sit at a dinner party, and whom to invite.
But don’t be deceived, although the meaning of these parables is easy to understand, it is all the more difficult to implement. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to tackle, and these parables are no exception.
Jesus is wearing his “master teacher” hat in this moment. Whereas the disciples around him are gearing up for a meal at someone’s home, Jesus looks around and starts telling a story about a dinner party. You can almost see them rolling their eyes and saying, “This too, Jesus!? Can’t we just have a break and eat lunch without some deeply challenging illustration?” But He leans into the awkwardness and calls attention to two very important practices of generosity that were not happening at the table set in front of them.
First, Jesus notices how people jockeying for position at the dinner table. There was a place of honor, and everyone wanted it. The closer you could get to the seat, the better your social standing and importance. Now, this wasn’t just any house, it was the house of a Pharisee, a religious leader in the day. The Pharisees were the “good guys,” the ones who were practicing the Jewish faith the right way. So to be at the Pharisee’s table, in the place of honor, meant not just that you were important to the host, but that you were important to God. It was a social statement and a religious statement all rolled into one.
And into this moment, Jesus awkwardly starts telling a story. He doesn’t look at them and say “I noticed you all were doing this…” Instead he says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. “ Now, we don’t know if this is true, but imagine if this had just happened. How awkward would that meal be? “Here he goes again, interrupting a perfectly good meal to make us all feel so uncomfortable.”
But the point Jesus is making is a critical one. He’s not just talking about social etiquette here. Jesus is bringing up a practice that many of us don’t think about when we consider generosity, but one that is intimately related to a generous heart. He’s bringing up the practice of humility.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Again, the kingdom of God is completely opposed to the way of the kingdom of man. In the upside down world that we currently live in, all of life is about climbing ladders to get to the top. We climb, to achieve more power, more status, more wealth, more influence. But Jesus flips it rightside up, and says “No, in my kingdom, the way up is the way down.” The path to greatness in God’s kingdom runs only through humility.
Now as a character trait, humility is notoriously difficult to find and measure, even within ourselves. How can we judge if our own hearts are humble or prideful? How can we know that our humility is genuine and not a false pride that masquerades as humility? And then, once we find that we are lacking in humility (as we all are), how do we begin to cultivate it? Is there a humility class we can take? Is there a bible study that will magically give us the grace of a humble heart?
This is one of the best parts of today’s story, because Jesus shows us that humility isn’t just something we think or feel, it’s something we do. According to Jesus, true humility shines through distinctly in these small, discrete actions that most people will never think twice about. Humility isn’t something that we display in grand gestures. It’s not something that gets dropped on us in moments of total transformation.
Humility is cultivated. It is built slowly, over time, through a thousand tiny decisions that no one else notices. Decisions like where I should sit at the dinner table, or who will I strike up a conversation with? Humility is not some ethereal quality that you either have or lack, like the ability to carry a tune or throw a baseball. Humility is available to everyone, and it can be brought to life in the slow process of making these simple decisions, over and over, until they become as natural to us as breathing. When we take the low place without even thinking of it, or without giving any consideration to who sees or cares, humility has taken hold of our heart.
So what does humility look like to us, in our current context? We don’t typically sit in seats of honor, or follow strict rules of etiquette or protocol. But the opportunities for practicing humility are around us everywhere.
The spiritual writer Adele Calhoun lists several actions of humility that are both incredibly appropriate for us and incredibly challenging:
- Refraining from image management.
- Deliberately keeping silent about accomplishments and talents.
- Refusing the impulse to name-drop.
- Backing away from becoming the center of attention.
- Avoiding favoritism.
- Choosing downward mobility so others have more.
If our only method of practicing humility was finding the right seat at a dinner party, we’d have very little time to actually practice humility. But this list, this is something we come across countless times every day! These things are so actionable, so practical, and so challenging.
How do we refrain from image management in the age of instagram? How do we keep silent about accomplishments, talents and name-dropping in the world of twitter? How do we back away from becoming the center of attention when Facebook is literally built to make us strive for attention. We live in an economy of “likes,” where our image is a product that we cultivate, craft, and then sell. If Jesus were to attend a dinner party today and tell this story, you can almost picture people scrambling quietly to grab their phone and delete the photo they just posted!
Again, the message of Jesus is pretty simple: take little, everyday opportunities like this to cultivate humility. And yet, when we go to put it into practice, things get challenging quickly!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. As soon as he has addressed humility, and given the table plenty to think about and chew on, he turns to the host of the party and directly challenges him: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Well, thanks again Jesus! Can you make this party any more awkward? Not only is he pointing out the subtle pride in his fellow dinner guests jockeying over a good seat, he bluntly states that part of the problem is that some of the guests shouldn’t even be here in the first place! What are you getting at here, Jesus? Can we just eat dinner?
But the practice Jesus is naming here is another aspect of generosity that quickly becomes lost in a prideful culture, the practice of hospitality. Jesus is calling out the truth that no one wants to acknowledge, that this dinner party isn’t about providing a blessing to others, it’s about impressing others.
Taking these words of Jesus and applying them to our current context is incredibly easy. All of us have experienced hospitality designed to impress, rather than to bless. In fact, just for giggles, I did a quick instagram search with the hashtag #hospitality. Look at what I found. [Images of hotels/vacation spots] Are these designed to bless someone or impress everyone?
And just to be safe, I tried another search. I know in our culture the word “hospitality” has become an industry related to hotels and travel. So what about something more neutral? I typed in #dinnerparty, and here were the results. [images of curated tables/settings] Does anyone notice anything wrong with these pictures of a dinner party? There are no people! Not only are we forgetting about blessing the people who come to the party, if the goal is to impress we don’t even need to have people there in the first place!
Now, it’s easy to poke fun at our instagram culture, but this really isn’t something new. The early church writers called this “ambitious hospitality,” a specific way of making space for others that intentionally drew attention to the host rather than the guest. It was problematic then, and it is problematic for us today. In fact, many of us struggle to practice hospitably because we feel like this is our competition! How could we ever compete with these curated meals? The answer is that we shouldn’t, because these images of hospitality aren’t really hospitality at all.
The practice of hospitality is one of the most ancient spiritual practices, with deep roots in the Old Testament tradition. Many times in scripture we see pictures of a guest being invited to dinner, or a stranger being provided with shelter. And the funniest thing happens, in many of these stories the blessing of hospitality works both ways. The host provides the blessing of food and shelter, and the guest many times provides an unexpected blessing to the host. In some instances, the guest turns out to be an angel or the Lord himself.
Hospitality, as a spiritual practice, is not merely about welcoming in a guest or neighbor, it is about finding and celebrating the presence of God in whatever guest we encounter. It is about believing that every person, friend or stranger, bears the image of God and has a blessing to share if we are willing to receive it.
Humility and Hospitality: two spiritual practices of generosity that are a huge challenge for us in today’s world. And yet, both of these practices are incredible opportunities for us to grow in generosity. Both humility and hospitality strike at the core of one of the deepest barriers to generosity that lives within, a mindset of scarcity.
We saw scarcity on display this week in the form of a Popeye’s chicken sandwich. This happens all the time, for some reason we develop this social mindset that everyone must have a Popeyes sandwich, and the “sold out” sign only makes it more feverish. People wait in line for hours, days even, for a chicken sandwich!
We do the same thing in our culture of pride. We jockey for the seat of honor because we view honor as a scarce resource, there’s only so much accomplishment and prestige to go around. If you get the accolade, I lose out on it. If you get more face time, I get less. The more likes your post gets, the more I notice my numbers that pale in comparison. It didn’t bother me before, but now I’m scrambling to craft my image in a way that will help me fight through the noise and grab more of that precious resource: the approval of others.
And we play the same game with our hospitality. There are a limited number of seats, so lets make them count! Let’s invite the best people, make sure the influencers are there. Let’s only welcome those who make us feel good about ourselves, and keep out anyone who might threaten our self-worth. In an attention-starved culture, being overlooked is worse than death.
But if we can pause from the vicious cycle of trying to climb to the top of society and realize that approval is abundant and unlimited in the kingdom of God, something revolutionary can happen. We can begin practicing humility without feeling threatened or diminished. Suddenly the “sold out” sign is seen for what it is, a total fabrication. Your victory is not my defeat! I can elevate you and celebrate you, and my worth isn’t threatened one bit. Suddenly we see our table differently, as an opportunity to honor others up rather than make ourselves feel honored. We begin to see the resources God has given us as a way to bless others, be they friends, strangers or even enemies. And as we do, the blessing is returned to us in ways we couldn’t imagine.
Practicing humility and hospitality are essential steps on the pathway of generosity. They shake us out of our scarcity mindset and begin to help us realize that the kingdom is always abundant, always unlimited. There’s nothing to fear, nothing to fight for, nothing to protect.
Just like last Sunday, where we gave you several practices of blessing to try out during the week, this week we are doing the same thing with practices of humility and hospitality. These are not items to make us holy, checklists to make us feel good about ourselves. They are not a goal in themselves. Instead, these practices are a way of cultivating something more important, something that only breaks through and blooms when we clear some room and provide some fresh air.
In addition, our practice groups are kicking off this week and will be focused on these practices of generosity. Jump into a group and begin walking through the next few weeks with a group of people that can help encourage you along the away. Some of these practices will be difficult, some may even seem impossible, but through it all you can have some companions on the journey cheering you on and helping you see God’s goodness with every little step.
Our breath prayer this week: “Jesus, teach me to humble myself and make space for others.”