One tradition in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the wisdom literature, frequently highlights the irony of inverted expectations. Thus, Sirach’s sage teaches that love is experienced in giving, rather than receiving; that greatness is revealed in humility; that wisdom is a better listener than talker. The Psalms tell us that God becomes the dwelling of the homeless, the liberty of prisoners, and refreshing rain for dry hearts.
Luke’s Jesus is fully a child of this oral tradition of paradoxical reversals. His own wisdom teaching, offered at a banquet of elite lawyers and pharisees, actually draws upon the advice in Proverbs (Pr 25:7) that it is “better to be invited, ‘Come up here,’ than be humiliated in the presence of the prince.”
Jesus’ own parable portrays people seeking the place of honor who are eventually asked to move, now blushing, to a lower place. “What you should do when you have been invited is go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host approaches you he will say, ‘My friend, come up higher.’”
This seems like a bit of advice from Dale Carnegie on how to win friends and influence people: If you want to look good, put on the mask of humility. But it is clear that Jesus is not offering mere courtly etiquette. He is talking about an existential reality. Those who exalt themselves, whether covertly or openly, will be humbled, and all who humble themselves shall be exalted.
It is not only guests who have the problem of ego-enhancement. The host does too. Elite house parties, whether hosted in Greek and Roman times or our own day, are honored by the best and brightest who attend. Such worldly wisdom is reversed as well. It is better, Jesus says, that we invite the unwanted and discarded to our dinners and be happy when they cannot repay us. For our payment will be in heaven.
This poses a still deeper paradox. Is Jesus suggesting that we act humbly only for the reason that we might be exalted? Is he advising us to use the poor as our stepping stone to heaven’s highest places?
I think not. Jesus is speaking to a group of people who set traps to catch him, who seem to understand only the logic of self-enhancement. Even on their own terms, their tactics are self-defeating. No matter what tactic of self-promotion they try, they will fail.
Pretending to be the least will not yield greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Luke is not presenting a stratagem to win approval. He is describing again something already expressed by Mary herself, that God routs the proud of heart, dethrones the worldly prince, and exalts the lowly. In such matters, faking it will not do the trick.