North of Inverness, near Muir of Ord, there’s an old castle, lovingly restored in recent years by its new owners. It’s very fortunate that they allow the Dominican Sisters of Elgin and myself to use the castle for running retreats, so every now and then I spend a weekend there. Part of the attraction and appeal is simple but lovely food served in a grand dining room. There’s a great, massive, solid table surrounded by similarly impressive chairs. Once the retreat was so popular that not everyone could sit at the table, so another one was then set in the corner of the dining room. That table was small, quite wobbly and could accommodate only two people. Following Jesus’ advice from today’s gospel, at our first meal I took a seat at that small table. Unlike in the gospel, nobody asked me to move to the main table and take a more prominent seat. For the rest of the weekend I was relegated to that wobbly small table in the corner of the dining room. I shared it with another man, while all the other seats at the grand table were taken by women. I believe it was purely accidental…
It would be a great mistake to take today’s gospel as a piece of practical advice regarding taking seats at parties. Nowadays it’s the hosts who take care of such arrangements by assigning their guests to particular seats. We are quite capable of making such arrangements without referring to the gospel – although I don’t want to stop anyone from doing so if they wish! In today’s gospel Jesus uses this particular situation to talk about the attitude that can blight people’s relationships and interactions. It’s called ‘pride’ and it’s listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins in traditional Christian moral teaching. We can have a problem with that, because there are many instances when ‘pride’ and its derivatives can have a very positive ring to them, like: ‘we are proud of our children’s achievements’ or ‘the result of our hard work is our pride.’ Our language is peppered with such positive phrases. Does it mean that ‘pride’ is not sinful anymore? Actually, the problem is with our translation rather than the attitude; a much more apt word is ‘vainglory’. This word has an explicitly negative connotation and it would be hard to find anyone who’d be happy to be described as such.
We are quite capable of identifying such people, with their enormous egos eclipsing the sun, their overblown claims of achievements and a pitiful sense of entitlement. Many reality shows on TV offer a pathetic parade of such vainglorious individuals in order to entertain the public. We laugh at them and feel better about ourselves; in fact, we feel comfortably superior to such characters. If that’s the case, we are among those whom Jesus watched in today’s gospel when ‘they picked the place of honour.’ Every time when I define myself as better than others, I am being vainglorious. It might sound a bit harsh, but that’s true. Truly mature individuals don’t need to compare themselves to others to find their own worth. Such individuals emanate self-confidence, but they are never intimidating; they command respect, but always naturally, never forcefully. They don’t have to shout about their importance as they are humble enough. This is the attitude we all should aspire to develop and achieve. This is the clue – it requires hard work on your side. It begins with a critical self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, followed by developing the former and gradually discarding or accepting the latter. The more compassionate you become towards those less fortunate than you, the further you have progressed towards the genuine ideal described by Jesus in today’s gospel.
A man was really angry that his flight had been cancelled. He refused to stand in the long queue to resolve his situation and approached the desk attendant demanding to be served first. When the attendant suggested to the man that he should wait in the queue like everyone else, he shouted: ‘How dare you! Do you know who I am?’ The attendant quickly grabbed the microphone and resolutely asked through the tannoy: ‘Does anyone know this man? Please help; he doesn’t know who he is.’