You may be familiar with times years ago when our parents might have said something like “What would the neighbours think?” whenever there was a family scandal or upset. It’s a distant time when we may also have heard grandparents and perhaps great grandparents say “Children should be seem and not heard.” I know that I heard these kinds of expressions when I was very small. At their heart I think there is something to do with shame and honour.
Shame and honour certainly have less significance in today’s culture – we don’t tend to hear those kinds of expressions anymore. But I’m sure that despite this, we are all familiar with the idea of giving guests the special seat at the table when they visit and join us for a meal – like when we invite people back for Sunday lunch. That brings us to our Gospel reading – it’s interesting in this passage that we are told it was the guests who picked the places of honour even though it was not their right to do so. You don’t go into someone’s home as a guest and assume that you can automatically sit at the place of honour at the table! The fact that the guests in our passage today were jostling for position was actually both rude and inappropriate.
There’s another issue too. In Jesus’s time, some people had got into the ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ habit, trying to invite people for dinner who would have been of a higher social status than they were simply to elevate their own standing in society. They knew that in doing so they would in turn be invited to dinner by those people in return.
I’ve seen something similar to this in one or two churches that I’ve visited in my years as a Christian, where people have been very possessive of their own seat, even to the point of asking visitors who have sat in their seat to move in a very rude and abrupt way. The point is that even in today’s time, we can experience similar kinds of behaviour – people are people at the end of the day, no matter what era they come from.
Jesus tells us that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. I want to be very clear that there is a world of difference between being humbled and being humiliated. We can be humble and carry dignity in our humility; we lose our dignity if we are humiliated. Being humble is a choice; being humiliated is not something any of us would choose.
There’s a double responsibility here; firstly of the guests and how they are to behave, and secondly of the host and who they should invite. Everything we do should not be about self; no self-centeredness, no self-serving behaviour, and each other’s needs to prefer. It’s important and even more important when we consider how we should behave in being invited to the heavenly banquet.
A very simple example which we are all familiar with might be how our Wardens often make sure that everyone else has received communion before they do. Another example would be how when I was a student some Church members invited me to join them for lunch and they were both willing and able to do that without expecting anything in return.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the passage from Hebrews tells us to “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters “ and not to “forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I believe that there’s something really significant about hospitality. I’d probably even classify hospitality as a gift of the Spirit. Henri Nouwen said “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life) He also said “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbour into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”
There are several ways in which we can exercise hospitality, most of which we already do:
- How we might welcome people who visit church
- If we invite people to church socials
- Being willing to offer up our seat to someone
- Offering to help people, whether members who might be involved in getting the Church ready before a service, visitors who might need a hand where to find things in a service, or members who might be involved in clearing things away after a service.
- Serving refreshments after a service
In the passage from Hebews, we are also told we must “not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. So may you be encouraged in the hospitality that you give and receive, and may you have the courage to invite God to create a humble heart within you, and if you already have one an even humbler heart. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Amen