Justice kindness and humility versus entitlement


Scripture: Luke 14: 1; 7-14 

Concerning justice kindness and humility, the Hebrew prophet Micah said,  “What does God require of you? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.”  [Mic. 6: 8]. These motifs are central to the Gospel Jesus’ message.  They relate directly to today’s Gospel story, as well as to events in the modern world.

Humility: Don’t presume to grab the best seats

Today, Jesus talks about where you should sit if someone invites you to a fancy dinner. “Don’t sit at the best table,” says Jesus. Someone more important may embarrass you by taking your seat.  You could get shoved off to the table next to the washrooms. Instead, sit somewhere more modest.  Perhaps someone will ask you to sit somewhere better.

This doesn’t look like hard core theology. It looks more like the common or folk wisdom we find in the Book of Proverbs. But it’s also about humility.

This isn’t the only occasion when Luke talks about dinner etiquette.  There’s also the story of an uninvited sinful woman who behaved more generously towards Jesus than his host, which I discussed on a previous occasion.

Arrogance, entitlement, and power: opposites of humility

Taken to extremes, we instinctively dislike people who display arrogance or entitlement. That what Jesus was really talking about in his story about people pushing to sit at the best seat at a banquet. Open your newspapers any day of the week, and you can read about people with a highly developed sense of entitlement. Entitlement involves the attitude, “I’m important, so the rules don’t apply to me.” The whole SNC-Lavalin affair boils down to entitlement. SNC’s executives thought that they were somehow above the law concerning bribery. Prime Minister Trudeau thought that his say-so on what to do should prevail because of his position.  Humility?  No.

But there are lots of other, more mundane examples. Should I qualify to get a kidney transplant ahead of someone who has lived their whole life on welfare? After all, I’m a productive member of society and they aren’t (supposedly). Why shouldn’t those US celebrities have pulled strings to get their kids into the best universities? They only wanted the best for their children. Why shouldn’t the first class passengers on the Titanic have got first crack at the lifeboats? They paid more for their tickets. Shouldn’t I enter God’s Kingdom ahead of an atheist? After all, I come to St. George’s every Sunday. All these examples are about people claiming entitlement because of position or privilege.

Humility or entitlement?

Then Jesus said something even more pointed. If you are having a dinner, don’t just invite your friends; they can invite you back. Invite people who cannot repay you – the poor, the blind, and the lame. Your blessing is precisely that they cannot repay you. This is where the two sets of sayings – about entitlement, and about helping the less fortunate – intersect.

Entitlement is really about power. Harvey Weinstein didn’t seduce starlets mainly out of lust. He did so to mostly demonstrate his power over them.

Jesus’ story about where to sit at dinner addressed the question of humility vs entitlement. It’s part, but only a part, of what the prophet Micah counselled. The other parts were justice and kindness. Our Canadian society has passed laws to prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender, or race, or sexual orientation. It seems as if we have reached out and invited to the table those without power, who could not have paid back “us” – the ones who already had the privilege. It looks like justice in action.

It’s hard for the privileged to reach out with justice and kindness

Unfortunately, that picture is far too rose-coloured. It made me think that what Jesus said to his Pharisee host was incomplete, or even unrealistic. If we are truthful, we, the privileged in Canadian society (or anywhere else) do not reach out with justice and kindness to those who face discrimination. We do not invite those “sitting at the less honourable seats” to move up somewhere better. Social advances and inclusion only happen because of sustained and determined activism by those in the “out” group. They are not because of the kindness and selflessness of the “in” group.

For example, the Toronto Pride Parade drew crowds of hundreds of thousands as a celebration in 2019. But it began in the 1980s as a protest by gay and lesbian people against their discriminatory treatment. Those first Pride Parades were not exactly met with official enthusiasm. Back then, Prime Ministers wouldn’t have been seen dead participating in them!  Justice, kindness, humility?  No.  Activism and push-back.

Unjust treatment of the under-privileged

The question of where to sit brings into sharp focus a famous example in US history. Rosa Parks challenged the rule that white people sat at the front of the bus in Montgomery Alabama, and black people sat at the back. By themselves, Jesus’ words would have had the black person wait at the back until invited to the front by the white person. Fat chance of that happening!  Martin Luther King said that this situation would not alter until those sitting in what Jesus called the less honourable places stood up and demanded change. In his famous “I have a dream” speech, King called upon his listeners to return from Washington to their mainly Southern homes, and demand change, to make his dream a reality. “Go back,” he said, “knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

A similar situation exists in Canada with respect to the treatment of First Nations peoples by the European settlers. The reason for their activism in our day is precisely the same as it has been for Black Americans. The majority has not shown kindness and a selfless sense of justice. We have not “offered them a better seat at the table” to address their concerns. No-one has offered the people of Grassy Narrows to clean up their river system or build a treatment centre for mercury poisoning. Justice? No.  Kindness?  No.  So far, their concerns haven’t been addressed, even though they have tried to push back.

Change is unpalatable

There will unquestionably be times when the members of a dominant “in” group, think that other peoples’ demands are unreasonable. But that’s often because the members of the “in” group will have to make concessions and accommodations. It is at the root of why Maxime Bernier and his ilk fear that “too much” immigration will change “Christian” society in ways they find unpalatable. Christians in the Western world have long had a privileged position as the dominant group in our societies. That’s why Christmas and Easter are public holidays. Justice, kindness, and humility all ask us to think about how to be inclusive and respectful of the holy days of other faiths.

This is why Monday’s Globe & Mail report on a debate at the Toronto Catholic District School Board is important. It concerns whether to include gender identity and family and marital status as grounds for discrimination in their code of conduct – even though these are in defiance of provincial law. How should the TCDSB show justice and kindness to all its students and employees while being true to its faith perspective?

Wisdom from the past, Gregory of Naziansus

Gregory of Naziansus, who lived 1700 years ago, in the 4th century, wrote about this subject. “Since we ourselves are human beings, we must set before others the meal of kindness no matter why they need it – whether because they are widows, orphans, or exiles; or because they are brutalized by masters, crushed by rulers, dehumanized by tax-collectors, bloodied by robbers, or victimized by the insatiate greed of thieves, be it through confiscation of property or ship-wreck. All such people are equally deserving of mercy, and they look to us for their needs just as we look to God for ours.”

“What does God require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.” Justice, kindness, and humility.  Not arrogance and entitlement.