I have this friend Caitlin who tends to just tell me the truth about things, which isn’t always comfortable.
Caitlin and I close friends but are really different people, and years ago we were both planning our 40thbirthday parties. Mine was a roller disco party at a rink I rented out – and hers was a group of close friends watching the sunrise on a hill over looking the city, which made me comment that Caitlin has so many personality traits that are just truly lovely and that I don’t have those same traits and she said “Of course you do Nadia, they just aren’t your favorite ones.”
I thought about that this week when I was reading our Gospel text and how Jesus seems to be addressing the things we do or don’t do so that we can be thought of in a certain way. As though he can just see right through us. Which is just the worst.
But in a way, I think that’s what this text is about. On the surface it seems to be a lesson in table etiquette or social climbing and hospitality. It looks like Jesus is giving us killer advice – that if we want a place of honor, the best way to attain that is not through just claiming it on our own, since someone might put us in our place and then we lose face. The best way to attain a place of honor is to claim a lower place than you deserve so that then folks might notice how humble you are and then insist you take a place of higher honor. Which is genius. It’s like that thing where if you go on one date with a boy and you like him and really want to see him again the trick is to not call him. It’s all very shrewd. But it doesn’t really sound like a point Jesus would make. Seriously, you don’t have to be overly familiar with the guy to realize that he’s probably not giving us advice about how to use false modesty for the purpose of social climbing … since social climbing and manipulation are not things Jesus is exactly known for.
See, here’s the thing: there are a couple ways of approaching biblical texts – namely that we can approach them as prescriptive or descriptive. And there are times when either approach might be appropriate … but I tend to have to work through my desire to read what Jesus says as a prescription for better living or holiness or super-duper discipleship to get to the less comfortable place of Jesus’ words describing something I’d rather not look at.
And since this thing Jesus says about how to act at a banquet is framed as a parable, I feel it’s only right that I remind us all that reading parables as advice for how to behave is like using riddles to get directions to the airport.
So the way I’m looking at it right now, I don’t think he’s saying that we should be shrewd in order to get ahead.
I think what he’s saying is that he’s onto us.
See, I wonder if maybe when Jesus talks about using either pride or false humility to be given a place of honor, I wonder if it’s not that he’s being prescriptive about how to do something right as he is being descriptive about all the ways we do something wrong. Like he’s just calling everyone out on the way in which we tend to not always be so honest about what we are up to.
Take for instance the second part of our reading. On the surface Jesus seems to once again be giving advice – this time for how to throw a dinner party. And while inviting the poor and lame and sick to dinner is a real Gospel-y thing to do, I think the point is that once again he is on to us. He’s not prescribing the recipe for a righteous dinner party; he’s describing the way in which we try to deceive ourselves and other people through things like altruism and hospitality and humility. How we so often can pawn narcissism off as a virtue if we just call it by anther name: If we call our volunteer work charity, then we don’t have to admit that we partly do it for the good feeling we get from being good. If we call our mani-pedis and expensive dinners "self-care,” we can pawn it off as a virtue and not an indulgence. If we call our self-deprecation humility, then we can pretend it’s not really an attempt to get other people to speak higher of us than we speak of ourselves.
When it comes down to it, we just do so much damn pretending. Pretending we don’t really rely a little too much on alcohol. Pretending that we are more confident than we really are. Pretending that we care more about people than we really do. Pretending we are not afraid. Sometimes we even overcompensate so much about the things we are trying to hide, that no one ever suspects the truth … and then we are left in the aloneness of not ever really being known.
I couldn’t help but think of all the ways in which I try to project things about myself — maybe as Caitlin suggested — my favorite parts of my personality, hoping that people will buy my PR about who I am. I’m not exactly alone. This practice of curating parts of the self is something we all do to some degree. We so carefully create a persona and it’s always only a partial truth. And just maintaining it can be exhausting.
And oh, my gosh, is nothing less helpful for this particular pathology than Facebook. Facebook allows us to curate an image of ourselves from just the parts of our lives and personalities we wish to project. It’s the great project of the self. We never see updates on Facebook that are like: spent the evening alone last night again. Or: Wonder if I’ll ever be loved. Or: Just manipulated my spouse to get my own way.
On some level, we are continually trying to pretend some things about us are not true and other things are, and if our Facebook profile picture could be seen as a metaphor for this, then our Gospel text for today feels like Jesus keeps tagging unflattering photos of us. Photos where our hair is a mess, photos where our butt looks big and one eye is half-closed. This is what Jesus does all the time, but in order to avoid the truth that he is speaking about us, we instead try to read everything he says as advice.
And so often I think the effort we put behind trying to pretend something about us is true, or that we are less than we are or more than we are is based in a fear of being really known, of being truly seen. Like there is a wound or a vulnerable place that we have to protect.
But in the end, the only real love to be found in the world is to be found when you are truly known. The 2000 film, Almost Famous tells the story of a young man who finds himself as a reporter on tour with a famous rock band. His conversation with an older writer at the end of the film captures this perfectly.
The young man laments that he tried to be cool, that he felt almost cool with these guys even though he knew he wasn’t.
The older writer is like “look, I’ve met you. You’re not cool. But the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
At the end of our text, Jesus says that when a party is thrown we should invite the lame, the poor, the crippled, and the blind. I wonder if perhaps he could be saying that in God’s kingdom, we can embrace that which we are trying to make up for. In the kingdom of God, we need not cultivate a persona to hide or overcompensate for the lame, poor, blind, and crippled parts of us. The unflattering photos. The parts, which have nothing to offer, the parts of us which need help navigating our lives, the parts of us which must rely on others for help. In other words the uncool parts of ourselves are exactly that which Jesus invites around his table.
As though the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with God and each other when we are uncool, lame, blind, poor, and crippled. And as uncomfortable as it might be to be seen in such a stark and uncompromising light, there is also just so much relief in it. You just don’t have to pretend, or over compensate or be shrewd. You can just be. And in just being you can, in the fierce and loving eyes of God be known, be whole, and maybe even rest a little. Because keeping it all up is just exhausting isn’t it? Amen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado. She’s a leading voice in the emerging church movement, and her writing can be found at www.nadiabolzweber.com and on the Sarcastic Lutheran blog. She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury) and Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (Jericho Books; September 2013).