Humility and Hospitality
Synopsis: In the traditional Mennonite community of my youth, humility was a prized virtue and “Hochmut” (pride) was a grievous sin. Likewise rabbi Shai Held explains that pride and arrogance are at the root of social oppression and inequality. Who is invited to dinner and the giving and receiving of gifts go to the heart of the matter. That’s why Jesus tells us to take a lesser seat at the table when we are being hosted. And in turn, when we are the host, we should invite those who are unable to pay us back.
Humility was a prized virtue in the traditional Mennonite farming community where I grew up. This had deep religious roots but it also expressed the practical ethos of a hardworking farming community where we depended on the shared labor of extended family and neighbors. Nobody should set oneself above the community. Hochmut or pride was seen as a grievous sin.
My father told the story of a man who came to a community barn raising in worn, patched work cloths and then chided others for coming in what he said looked like Sunday attire. A neighbor who had all he could take of such ribbing chided the man in turn, “Here you are in your worn, patched cloths and you’re proud of it.” That’s Hochmut!
For them, pride was one of the worst sins. I never heard my parents boast about the accomplishments of any of us children. One simply didn’t do that. While I understand where they were coming from, I make a distinction between freely complementing the accomplishments of my children and being boastful. Another story in this vein is of a plain Mennonite couple who bought a new car but toned down its shine by washing it with dirty water before driving it to church.
My uncle Abram lived on a neighboring farm, right across the road from our farm. He and my Dad often worked together; that included me and my brother when I was a boy. I spent lots of time with uncle Abe. He sometimes had a very earthy way of talking and he was quick to level any pride of place. Once, when the news was full of reports of the Queen of England’s visit to our country, he dismissed it by saying that she goes to the bathroom like everyone else.
Such communitarian sensibilities fit naturally into the face-to-face relationships of close-knit, traditional communities where people depend on each other for labor and other resources. There’s wisdom in this that we’re rapidly losing in our country were the gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially since 1983 when the top 1% and the bottom 90% each owned 33% of the wealth in our country. Even that gap is way to huge. Today the top 1% owns 40% of the wealth and share of the bottom 90% has dropped to 21% This trend cannot hold; something has to give.
Pride and arrogance are at the root of such inequality. Rabbi Shai Held comments, “Arrogance destroys. Those who glorify themselves at the expense of others end up ruining relationships at every turn. As the book of Proverbs warns, “Arrogance yields nothing but strife (13:10).” I’m not going there in this sermon but some prominent examples of this come to mind in the public life of our country. Rabbi Held explains
Why is arrogance so bad? For one thing, one who spends her time admiring her own achievements (whether imagined or real) quickly forgets how much she needs others. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all inescapably dependent on others—parents who birth us, teachers who nurture us, farmers who feed us, artisans and factory workers who help clothe us, and so on, almost literally without end. And to be alive is to be dependent on God, who brings the world, and us within it, into being. . . Mark Twain witheringly observed that “a self-made man is like a self-laid egg.” Arrogance is presumptuous; it’s also—necessarily—false. At bottom, arrogance is a form of forgetfulness. The only words we remember are I and me.
Perhaps this is why the book of Proverbs is so insistent that pride goes before ruin; arrogance before failure (16:18). The gains enabled by arrogance are corrupting and—in any case—short lived. They corrode and undermine the social fabric of local communities and whole societies. Even though the arrogant person himself may not appear to experience these effects, the larger social effects are devastating in the long-term. The immediate context of Proverbs 25: 6-7 is that of couriers who vie for power and stratus in the royal court. The same dynamic is prevalent in centers of power in our day. The wisdom expressed in Proverbs that such a single minded grab to exalt oneself invites disaster.
Jesus’ comments against seeking places of honor at a dinner party are in continuity with the Jewish wisdom tradition as seen in the book of Proverbs. The alternative to such self-seeking arrogance is humble and committed service to a cause greater that ourselves. “He’s reminding his disciples that self-promotion can lead to humiliation, and that humble service leads to the only glory that matters: being good and worthy in the eyes of God and our fellow human beings.”
Jesus’ comments also demonstrate that small, apparently trivial acts reveal our character. Things such as switching place names and taking a preferred seat at a dinner party, passing a long line of cars and then squeezing back in, padding my resume, or conveniently forgetting to do my part of the chores, all indicate that I tend to be self-serving at the expense of others.
Furthermore, the opposite of arrogance is not being a pushover—allowing others to intimidate me. To fail to speak up or act when I or others are being abused or discriminated against is not humility. No, that’s being a coward. Humility listens to and respects everyone with the aim of seeking the greater good and putting love into action. Sometimes it might mean getting into a fight but we fight with the goal of winning over our opponent rather than vanquishing him or her.
After speaking about humility, Jesus turns to being a good host. This involves being outgoing and friendly. A good host is concerned for the comfort of others, being generous and gracious. But there’s often a shadow side to hosting parties. This shadow side involves who gets invited and using the party to gain power and influence. People vie to get on the guest list in order to be seen and recognized.
Gifts are often used as a way to put people into our debt. We Americans often don’t recognize this as we should. As many of you know, Ruth and I lived and served in the Philippines for eight years. Filipinos are more cognizant of this and have a term for it, Utang ng loob, which is translated “debt of gratitude.” Filipino political families commonly give small loans, host parties, pay people to attend political rallies, and hand out money at election time in exchange for people’s loyalty and votes. Municipalities that vote for the winning candidate often receive special favors such as a new elementary school.
This is quid pro quo (one thing for another) is more hidden in our American political system. It doesn’t involve giving gifts to poor people in the same way. And it’s reversed. Rich people and corporations in America give large unidentified donations (dark money) to politicians in return for political favors. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock calls this “the ugly face of generosity which binds and the demonic character of gifts with strings attached.” Jesus tells us that people who play this ugly game have their reward but that when we host a party we should invite those who cannot repay. Fred Craddock continues:
In the kingdom God is the host and who can repay God. Jesus is therefore calling for kingdom behavior, that is, inviting to table those with neither property nor place in society. Since God is host of us all, we as hosts are really behaving as guests, making no claims, setting no conditions, expecting no returns.
I can’t overemphasize how radical this is. It’s not about caring for the poor and disabled. Sure, caring for others a good thing. Right now our church is collecting school supplies which will be put into kits for poor school children around the word. I commend us for this effort. Hazel gets lots of satisfaction in sewing the cloth bags to place the kits in. Our children enjoy putting those kits together and I enjoy delivering them to the MCC Gift and Thrift store.
What Jesus is advocating, however, goes beyond such efforts. He, instead, tells us to invite the poor and needy to dinner. It’s rooted in the innate dignity and worth of each person as created in the image of God. This is the New Testament’s conception of hospitality. The Greek word translated “hospitality” literally means “love of a stranger.”
The clear sign of acceptance, of recognizing others as one’s equals, of cementing fellowship, is sitting around a table and eating together. “In the Christian community no one is a ‘project.’” Do you think Jesus was serious about opening up our homes and our church fellowship hall in this way? If so, how can we grow into this kind of hospitality? How can we expand on what we’re already doing and what things might we start that we’re not doing?
 Rabbi Shai Held, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (August 14, 2019
 Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press: 1990), 177.
 Ibid., 178.