Taking the lowest place: sermon on the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Noticing how the guests were choosing the first seats, He told them a parable.”

The atmosphere in this gospel is tense. A leading Pharisee has invited our Lord to dine with him on a sabbath day. A sabbath meal among the Jews should have been a festive occasion, but, as St Luke says, “They were watching him.” Maybe there was some good will on the part of the Pharisee, but there was clearly much suspicion also. The situation deteriorates when Christ asks them a question which they are afraid to answer — whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath — then heals the man with “dropsy” (that is, severe water retention), contrary to their exaggerated interpretation of “sabbath rest”, and finally shows them by a simple question that their interpretation of the Law of Moses is inconsistent and indeed inhuman. They will free their own valuable beast from a well on the Sabbath day, dragging it even with great effort out of the water or mud in which it is stuck, so how can they object if He frees a man made in God’s image from the water which is making his life miserable? 

If the minds of the Pharisee and his friends can be directed to search out the meaning of a riddle, then at least they will no longer be occupied with their grievance against Him. And sometimes, when minds are drawn toward a person’s words, hearts will follow. It is perhaps in response to this hostile atmosphere that our Lord goes on to tell a parable. 

I say “the meaning of a riddle” because I think it would have been clear at least to the more intelligent of our Lord’s hearers that He is not really interested in telling them how to obtain for themselves the maximum amount of human honour at a wedding. The least perceptive among them should have recognised that He was not ambitious for human honour; and, moreover, if He had really been thinking about such honour, He would have had no reason to limit His advice to wedding feasts, since the same technique — that of sitting in the lowest seat in order to be brought publicly up to the highest — would work equally well at any kind of public banquet.

No, the wedding, along with the kingdom, is our Lord’s favourite image for what He has come to inaugurate. A wedding feast, something to which everyone is glad to go, and which somehow elevates all the participants above their ordinary round of cares and occupations, is the perfect symbol for the communion into which God, the Blessed Trinity, calls all rational beings. The first ones to be invited to this feast were the angels. The angels were created in spiritual beauty, not yet beholding the face of God, but able by a single act of submission to the divine will to enter into beatitude.

Lucifer, as we know, refused to obey. He wanted something beyond that which his Creator was offering to him. But what could he have desired, what was there to desire, greater than beatitude? Some mystical writers have said that from the beginning of creation, the angels were shown that the Word of God would one day become incarnate as a man, and that God required them to accept this holy mystery. Those that did accept it were rewarded with beatitude, while those that refused the divine decree were excluded. These writers say that Lucifer, being very high or even supreme among the angels, thought it a slight to his own angelic dignity that the Word of God should take on a human nature: if any nature was going to be united in a single person with the eternal Word, he considered that it should be his own angelic one. And thus rejecting God in his pride, he “fell from heaven like lightning”.

This may be correct. Public revelation, however, does not contain a full account of the fall of the angels, or of the reason for it. Yet we can say that Lucifer, the first of the fallen angels, desired to have beatitude as if it were his by right, and not to receive it as a gift, on terms set by God. That is to say, he arrogated to himself a position higher than the one which belonged to him as a mere creature, noble though his nature was. He wanted to enjoy a privilege that belongs, and can belong, to God alone, namely, to be perfectly blessed without having to receive blessedness by another’s gift. He thus put himself, at least by desire, in the first place of all, and so he was thrown from heaven, and “began with shame to take the lowest place”, in the infernal regions — kept in darkness, as St Peter says, light-bearer though he was, until the day of judgement (2 Pet 2:4). Surely, this is part of what our blessed Lady had in mind when she said that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones”.

The position which Lucifer coveted could not be his, because he is a creature. However, there is one to whom it does belong by right. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the Virgin, is the Word of God in person. Blessedness therefore belongs to Him by right, which is why His human soul, from the first moment of its existence, enjoyed the vision of God, without having to merit it as the angels did. Being God, and the only man on earth blessed by His own right, Christ could therefore have appeared in the world as the world’s sovereign, and have required every kind of obedience from all people. But instead, He chose to act more divinely. He chose the womb of the Virgin, birth in a cave, exile in Egypt, obscurity in Nazareth of Galilee. Though He was the Bridegroom, He acted as if He were a mere guest at the wedding banquet arranged by His Father, taking the lowest place, so that we might learn to love humility.

And since He, the Son, became “humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross”,the Father as it were said to Him on the morning of His resurrection, “My friend, come up higher”. By His ascension, Jesus obtained “the highest place, in the sight of all, being manifested as the Son of God in power”, at least to the angels, as He will be manifested to absolutely all rational beings, both the elect and the reprobate, on the last day.

Such, it seems to me, is the deep meaning of this parable. Of course, the Pharisee and the other guests in his house could hardly have been expected to grasp it clearly, especially when the apostles themselves often failed to understand the meaning of Christ’s words until the coming of the Holy Spirit on Whit Sunday. But they could at least have accepted the law which He lays down at the end: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Since we are members of Christ, our lives will reproduce in some way the pattern of His own. We take the lowest place, whatever may be our outward rank, when we inwardly deem others as more worthy of honour than ourselves, because of our sins. But we also know that humility is so precious in God’s eyes that He will honour those who persevere in this virtue until the end; and that He will cause them to be honoured, not by powerful people in this world (which would be a trial rather than a reward), but “by those who sit at table” with Him in the next.