Get a group of Episcopal clergy talking, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to their experiences officiating at weddings. Someone in the group will no doubt relate a moving story of an estranged family reconciled and reunited at the wedding of a son or daughter. Before long, another cleric will begin reminiscing about a great-grandmother’s tears of joy as she watched the next generation of her family grow to adulthood and wed. But then – inevitably – someone else in the group will bring up with a sigh of resignation the difficult bride with unrealistic expectations and demands or the tipsy best man who barely made it through the service.
Truth is, no wedding ceremony ever seems to go exactly according to plan. Weddings just seem somehow to bring out the best – and sometimes the worst – in people. Clergy know that. Indeed, we all know it. And apparently, so does Jesus if our gospel account today is any indication. It is probably not for nothing that he sets his parable lesson today at a wedding feast where everyone is already anxious – trying their hardest to look and act their best – and vying for the best seats and places.
At first glance, this story appears to be nothing more than a straightforward, practical lesson in the twin virtues of courtesy and hospitality – among the most esteemed in the ancient world. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” our Lord begins, “do not sit down at the place of honor.” After all, there may well be other, more distinguished, guests who outrank you. Choose instead the lower places at table, he continues, “so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher.’”
Common sense, we might rightly say, nodding our heads in agreement. Just good manners.
But Jesus is, of course, no first-century Miss Manners, and he has far more important things on his mind than table etiquette and protocol. Our selfish instincts, he knows, are not confined to wedding banquets and the dinner table. In every age and culture, it has been part of human nature for folks to act in their own self-interest – sometimes even while seemingly acquiescing to the needs and wants of others. We do it all the time, often without even thinking about it.
Whole economies are based on the principle of rugged individualism and self-reliance, the notion that, without interference from others, we are all better off depending on our own initiative and enterprise – acting in our own self-interest. Social scientists might even tell us that this is unavoidable and simply part of human evolution. After all, all creatures have a natural propensity to foster and advance their own survival. We are no exception. As one bumper sticker popular in California puts it: “It’s About Me.” That pretty much says it all.
At a certain level, of course, some might argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Flight attendants warn us to secure our own oxygen masks first before assisting others – and for fairly obvious reasons. Therapists urge clients to be sure they are “getting their own needs met” before trying to reach out to others when already psychically exhausted. And we are all learning anew the importance of self-care – taking responsibility for our own health and well-being every day.
But what takes place at the wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable is emblematic of different and much deeper truths.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” our Lord concludes, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is not the practical experience of the workaday world we know so well. And if we are to believe Jesus, the ordinary rules of human self-aggrandizement, greed, and pride suddenly no longer apply. In the upside-down, topsy-turvy world of the gospel, everything is turned around. The humble are the exalted ones. The poor are the rich. The crippled and lame are the well. And the blind are the ones who see.
And it is not about me after all.
The world turns out to be not as solid and real as we had believed. Ultimately, our self-reliance turns out to be an illusion. For we all depend upon one another whether we recognize it or not. And whether we like it or not, we all depend on God. More than that, our Lord insists, it is only in emptying ourselves of our selfish impulses and accepting our sheer dependence upon God and others that we truly come to realize our own worth and value. Only by humbling ourselves can we approach the One who humbled himself on the cross.
This is the paradox – and the challenge – of the gospel. The kingdom, of which our Lord so often speaks, is a realm at odds with this everyday world of ours and its values. In the spiritual realm of God’s kingdom, survival of the fittest takes on a whole new meaning. And the second law of thermodynamics no longer applies: there is no limit – no end – to the energy of God’s love; it goes on forever. The “resurrection of the righteous,” as Jesus calls it here, reveals our true and genuine nature. And we will be repaid – not in ever higher salaries and exalted titles – but in the only currency that counts, the love God has for us and which we share with one another.
Any bride and groom who survive the wedding and go on to a happy married and family life soon enough learn first hand the important lesson of Jesus’ parable today; they soon enough come to know the meaning of selfless giving; they soon enough glimpse the kingdom at play in spouse and children. But you do not have to be married to find God and his “angels” masquerading as “strangers” in your midst. The kingdom, after all, is close at hand.
We pray today with the author of our reading from Hebrews, “Let mutual love continue.”
Now, that would make a nifty bumper sticker.