Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
In our Gospel passage this morning, we have a lesson in humility or maybe instruction in how to avoid embarrassment. St. Cyril of Alexandria points out that it is not merely the sin of pride that would cause us to take the place of another but also the sin of theft.
Therefore, if we have taken the seat of honour that belongs to another, then we must make restitution. In that light, it is not just a matter of being disgraced or receiving your comeuppance, but rather of restoring the one whose honour you have stolen through your own disgrace, i.e., making restitution to him.
In Metropolitan’s book, Touching Godliness, he explains the significance of chairs of honour. I remember seeing this to a limited extent in some homes that I went to when I tagged along with my dad’s pastoral visitation as well.
In some cultures, especially throughout Asia, for a younger person or subordinate to sit on the official chair of an elder or leader is seen as disrespectful. When I was growing up, we children were not to sit on our father’s chair. My mother would tell us, “That is your father’s chair. Don’t sit on it.”
When visitors or relatives came to our home, no one would sit there. Even when he was not at home, his chair remained vacant. Still today, when I go to any house in any country, I look around to find the chair where the father of the house sits, and I will not sit on that chair. When people insist that I do, I simply explain, “I am sorry. It is out of respect. I cannot do it.”1
The places of honour at a feast are decided by the host of the feast. This feast is hosted by the Lord, so it is His criteria, St. Irenaeus tells us, of who is the greatest and who is the least. Furthermore, he explains that resistance or opposition to that criterion is a far greater sin of pride than of simply taking the place that doesn’t belong to you. St. Cyril of Alexandria explains what the requirements are for the places at the Lord’s feast,
If any one among you wants to be set above others, let him win it by the decree of heaven and be crowned by those honours that God bestows. Let him surpass the many by having the testimony of glorious virtues. The rule of virtue is a lowly mind that does not love boasting. It is humility.2
It is not merely enough for us to refrain from seeking the greatest places but also to seek the lowest places. If we want theses virtues and to come quickly up the heavenly ascent, St. Benedict tells us that we need to focus on good works. It is through working our faith out with Christ and learning the virtues and making them part of our life that we are able to ascend in our spiritual life.
In our epistle reading, we see a practical life situation to work out this parable. St. Paul tells us that it is better to be wronged than to go before unbelievers. It is better to let others have a place of greater prominence than to force yourself into that place of prominence. We are to learn humility by allowing others to defraud us.
The Fathers point out the absurdity of Christians having lawsuits before unbelievers. It is like two friends choosing their mutual enemy to be the one who will reconcile their differences. It simply doesn’t make any sense.
Furthermore, it is disgraceful for us to do such a thing. We are going to judge the world for important things, and we condescend to be judged by them over trivial things? This is simply crazy. If we think it through logically there is simply no conceivable reasons for Christians to be taking Christians before unbelievers.
In all this we do not say or understand that we are to resist or disrespect secular authorities. Romans 13 and other places very clearly admonishes us to respect their authority and to give them honour. We are simply not to appeal to them as our arbiter.
St. John Chrysostom tells us that in taking other believers to court we may be guilty of at least four sins or crimes.
The first is not knowing how to bear being wronged. The second is to do no wrong. The third is to reserve settlement of the matter to the unrighteous. And the fourth is that this kind of thing is being done to fellow believers.3
God has called us to the way of life and love. If we are fostering anything in our lives that cause division, we are walking contrary to the way we have been called. As far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with all men.
What to do now? If we have taken a place of honour for ourselves, let us seek to make restitution to the one to whom it belongs. We must actively seek to live a life of humility. We must seek to add the virtues to our lives.
Is there a way today or this week that we know of to give honour to another? Let us make sure that we do so.
Let us try to give honour to our secular authorities as much as we can. We can do this through simply following the Covid restrictions as much as possible. Following the rules of the road. We can also be mindful to pray and bless our political leaders whether we agree with their policies or not. We can also try to remember to speak of them with their correct titles. I have noticed a trend to speak of the Premier and the Prime Minister among some of my circles of friends by their first name if they don’t appreciate their political policies. Let us strive to give as much honour as we can.
Finally let us pray for and bless our plaintiffs.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Lauder, Robert Scott, 1803-1869. Christ Teaches Humility, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55623 [retrieved December 10, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Teacheth_Humility.jpg.
1 Moran Mor Athanasius Yohan I Metropolitan, Touching Godliness (Believers Eastern Church, 2008, 2013), 123
2 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 236
3 Thomas C. Oden and Gerald Bray, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 51