May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today from St Luke, we are presented with a somewhat unedifying scene. He is in the home of a Pharisee and the guests – we do not know whether they are also Pharisees of simply men of rank and importance from the locality – are all jockeying for the best seats, the places of honour … and by doing so they are making it clear to all around them how important they think they are … and that they consider that their importance is something that must be recognised by all around them.
Now, in our own society, we don't do formal dining very often. And when we do, the seating tends to be assigned in advance. So it might be useful to go into more detail as to what it going on in this scene. You may have noticed in some passages from the Gospels that the sacred author mentions that our Lord and his companions are reclining at table. That is because in the Mediterranean world of the time, especially on formal occasions, the guests were place on a series of wide couches, one each on three sides of a low, square table, with the fourth side being left open so that the servants might have space to serve. Each couch would normally have three places. The host sat at the one to the left of the open side; with the place next to him on the couch being reserved for the most honoured guest, and the one next to him for the next most honoured; and so on until all the nine spaces were filled. If there happened to be more people than that number at the party, then they were seated elsewhere … perhaps sitting on cushions on little tables placed nearby.
In the scene St Luke describes, the guests who think themselves most important are vying for the best places. So perhaps the host is not yet present in the room – he may be at the entryway to his home, greeting others who are still arriving. And without him present to say to those who presume they will be at the 'top table' with him 'sit here, brother' and 'no, you must sit there, my friend' they are arguing among themselves … and clearly making something of a spectacle of themselves.
Our Lord uses the occasion to admonish their behaviour, telling them a parable that is based upon the very actions that they themselves are in the process of carrying out. But our Lord, of course, is concerned with the social etiquette of his day. His concern, rather, is the pride these men are displaying and the moral failing it indicates and the spiritual dangers that go along with it. This is why he calls them to behave humbly, with humility.
Because humility is not about being self-effacing or not pushing yourself forward. The humble person, in the Christian sense, is someone who makes a truthful evaluation of themselves, without any falsehoods or deceptions, and acknowledges what they are when compared with God; they recognise how insignificant they are in comparison with their creator, how dependent they are upon him, and their own inclination toward sin. Humility orients the person to the necessity of placing their own will subordinate to that of God's, which leads them to humbly be obedient to his laws – striving to be obedient to them at all times, and being sincerely remorseful when they fail, asking his forgiveness and truly striving to do better in the future.
Pride, on the other hand, leads us to put our will before that of God, causing us to sin. Pride causes us to say that no one can tell us what to do – not even God. And even if we can not bring ourselves to defy God so openly, pride can still lead us to refuse to obey God's law. Consider the references to the moral law that we have today in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews. How many there are today who refuse to follow those precepts, saying that they are outdated, irrelevant, that God does not worry about such things – even though the inspired words of Sacred Scripture flatly contradict their claims.
This is why Christ condemns the pride of the Pharisees that leads them to bicker over seating arrangements. Not because of the societal implications of such pettiness; but because of the spiritual ones. Christ did not come into the world to make us good citizens; he came to make us holy children of God during our time in this world. The person who is holy will naturally behave rightly towards God and neighbour; leading a life that leads to a place at the only banquet that matters – the heavenly and eternal banquet in heaven. And let us pray that all here will take their place at that banquet at the end of their days. Amen.