Sirach 10: 12-18
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
13 For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
14 The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
15 The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,[f]
and plants the humble in their place.
16 The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
17 He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
18 Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.[a] 4 Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ 6 So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus[a] was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8 ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 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. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
Here’s a story from my childhood. It’s a sunny, early summer Sunday afternoon and we are all in the garden. My elder sister, Ros who would have been about 9, was bouncing on her new trampoline at the other end of the garden, watched by my father. My younger brother Bob, who was 5, was playing on the slide. And I was helping my mother plant out some flowers.
I can remember we had these garden kneelers, and mum and I were kneeling on the edge of the lawn, reaching into the flowerbed, and she was telling me how to do it, how to make a hole with a trowel, just the right depth, and then put a bit of water in the bottom with the watering can, and then put the plant in, and cover the roots with soil, and then press it in, making a little moat round the plant, and then finally giving it some water before moving along twelve inches for the next one.
A perfect scene, of family life.
But it didn’t last very long. After a bit Bob got bored of playing on the slide. And he looked over, and he saw me, basking in attention from mum, following her instructions and being rewarded with praise, “Well done, Richard, that’s right.” And my brother thought, this has gone on long enough.
Now I should explain that me and Bob used to watch quite a lot of cartoons when we were little, especially Tom and Jerry – because maybe that was where the inspiration came for what he did next.
He saw, lying on the ground, a garden fork. It was a big, old thing, really heavy – looked like it was very old. And he had an idea. He went over and picked up the fork – I really don’t know how he managed it, as he was only small, it was bigger than him. He was very quiet. And he managed to carry it over towards where me and mum were, without anyone noticing what he was doing. And just as I was reaching over to make another hole with my trowel, he swung the fork into my upturned bottom.
It really hurt! It wasn’t sharp, but it was heavy, and he gave it everything he had! I remember afterwards I had 3 bruises across my bottom.
But what hurt more was that my parents laughed – the couldn’t help it! I thought they should have been really cross with him and sent him to his room – and they were a bit cross, but the trouble is, if you’re laughing, then really you’re not cross at all.
And what hurt most of all was that he got what he wanted! He did something really naughty and suddenly he was in the limelight, he was the centre of attention, soaking up the approval that he felt from their laughter. And I was the butt – literally, of his joke.
I tell you this story because it is about rivalry, competition between me and my brother, competition for our parents’ approval, for their love. Competition for position, for status. Competition between children is one of the oldest forms of this kind of rivalry. You could say it’s our first experience, which shapes the competitive tactics of life as we become adults.
Jesus in the two stories in our gospel reading undermines this kind of competition. He talks about people in a public dinner, about the pecking order, the ranking between people. The context maybe different, but the same instinct is there today.
And what he says is, seek the lower place. Turn your back on this competition for position, status, approval, recognition: do the opposite.
Now he is a bit playful, pointing out that maybe this can work to your advantage. I don’t know if you have ever felt that feeling: If I take the lowly place, if I’m really humble, then my parents will notice and reward me – and bring me back up to where I should be after all – and in a roundabout way all you are doing is competing just like before, only using a new tactic.
No, if we take all of Jesus’ teaching on this theme, it’s clear he means something more profound. We enter into a different life, which offers a very different kind of fulfilment.
Firstly, it’s a life where we have no need to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love. We can leave behind all that worry. Our heavenly father loves us anyway, always, for we are made in his image, shaped out of love, to be loved, and to love in return.
And secondly, because when we ignore status and position, when we stop competing, then we are open to connecting, to a meeting of heart and soul with the other, with our brother or sister in Christ.
Perhaps this is one meaning of what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews might mean when he says that we should make mutual love our way of being, for when we do, the stranger in our midst becomes an angel, and maybe we become an angel for them…