Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 3.4-15
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I have just been reading a remarkable account of a British traveller who, just a few months after September 11 2001, walked across Afghanistan. It was just after the American-led invasion of the country, which drove the Taliban out of Kabul. The author writes:
The country had been at war for twenty-five years; the new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.
Walking through the mountains in the middle of the winter, his military training got him across mountains and through blizzards. His knowledge of the local languages and customs helped him though some alarming encounters, including with some Taliban fighters. Do read The Places In Between if you want to know something of Afghanistan.
The author who undertook this extraordinary journey has been in the news this recently. Rory Stewart is now a member of Parliament, who recently stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party, but who lost the party whip this week. But why I mention his Afghan journey is because it gave me an insight into a kind of culture which we meet in today’s Gospel reading.
Throughout his journey, the local people would give Rory Stewart shelter and food, even when they were very poor. It was all part of the Islamic culture of hospitality. Sometimes he would sleep in a simple house, but sometimes at the home of the local feudal chief. On these occasions, there would often be a good deal of etiquette involved, especially if there were a number of guests. It all depended on status:
In both Iran and Afghanistan, the order in which men enter, sit, greet, drink, wash and eat defines their status, their manners and their view of their companions. If a warlord had been with us he would have been expected, as the most senior man, to enter first, sit in the place furthest from the door, have his hands washed by others, and be served, eat and drink first. People would have stood to greet him and he would not normally have stood to greet others… Status depended not only on age, ancestry, wealth and profession, but also on whether a man was a guest, whether a third person was present and whether the guest knew the others well.
All of which gives us an insight into the kind of thing which is going on in today’s Gospel reading. As Rory Stewart found in Afghanistan, so Jesus found when he went for dinner at a Pharisee’s house one Sabbath and found a weird kind of jostling for position: he ‘he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour’.
The top officials of the local synagogue have invited Jesus to dinner on the Sabbath day- what seems like an honour for this wandering preacher. But Jesus has made enemies among people like that, for he has spoken plainly about God’s love for all people, and not just the ‘unco guid’, and often accused religious figures of hypocrisy. And so we are told ‘that they are watching [Jesus] closely’. It is almost as if he is being lured into a trap.
And then Jesus notices that there seems to be a breach of etiquette going on. Some people thing think they deserve better seats. Rory Stewart observed the same kind of thing in Afghanistan. In one occasion, a visiting warlord took the place of honour, but he didn’t know that another man in the room was the hereditary head of the village and a descendant of the Prophet, who was too polite to point out the warlord’s mistake. It was all rather embarrassing.
So Jesus tells his guests: if you barge in a sit at the place of honour, you are likely to get the heave if someone else arrives who’s more distinguished than you. This was something they already knew: indeed, the exact case is dealt with the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Proverbs:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
The Book of Proverbs is an example of a genre which the scholars refer to as ‘wisdom literature’: instructions on how to live wisely. It seems that often the authors or collectors of such sayings and advice were high status people themselves. The proverb I’ve quoted is telling us that to do in a king’s presence: it is the etiquette of a royal court, but it is applicable down further down the social scale.
For the people of Jesus’ day there was one name that they associated with wisdom- the legendary King Solomon. Today we heard the famous story of how Solomon sought wisdom from God. He has just been pushed into power, and become King of Israel. Anyone with any sense in that sort of situation would of course feel apprehensive. Who would ever feel prepared to lead a nation?
So Solomon goes to Gibeon to worship God, seeking a blessing as he takes on his awesome responsibilities. Not too different, perhaps, from what we are doing today, as we seek God’s blessing on those who have been chosen to lead our city. But that night, in a dream, God appears the new king and says, ‘Ask what I should give you’.
A king might have asked for power or wealth, for victory in battle, for the confounding of his enemies. But Solomon, instead, asks for wisdom. And God approves- Solomon will also have ‘riches and honour’, but precisely because he has asked for wisdom, he will be a successful king. And, indeed, the very next story is a tale of Solomon’s legendary wisdom, as he judges a difficult case.
I expect that my colleague, Doug McRoberts, will pray for wisdom for our councillors and all those who, like Solomon, are called to political leadership. for what very often what upset the rest of us is when we think politicians don’t show much wisdom. But perhaps it depends on what you think of as wisdom.
If you were to ask many people to name an author who wrote wisdom for politicians, they might well mention Machiavelli. His book The Prince is a kind of mediaeval book of political wisdom, but as even those who have never read it, it is well-known for being, above all, cynical. We often describe as politicians as ‘Machiavellian’ when his or her wisdom consists of dirty tricks, dishonest conduct, dishing dirt on their opponents. A Machiavellian is someone who seems only interested in power in order to keep it, with little real interest in those he is governing.
And frankly, in a way, the sort of advice we heard in that proverb I mentioned earlier, and which Jesus quotes approvingly, seems to be that sort of wisdom. As I said, it’s the wisdom of how to act at the king’s court, so you don’t make a fool of yourself, and get yourself disgraced.
But Jesus takes the conventional wisdom further. For all this etiquette is really about power and ambition. So Jesus deconstructs it. He reminds his listeners that the person who take a seat at the top table but gets demoted will make a fool of themselves, as they are demoted and sent to a seat further down the room. But supposing you take a less prestigious place at the table, and your host says, ‘Friend, move up higher’- well then you will be honoured. So far, so conventional.
But now Jesus takes that embarrassing dinner party incident, and says the principles involved are true of life in general. He says that
all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
That’s one of these paradoxical sayings of which Jesus was so fond: like
the last will be first, and the first will be last
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant
It is more blessed to give than to receive
Jesus teaches that it is not the rich, the powerful, the people who think they are better than everyone else, who will be first in his Kingdom. The best leaders are those who serve others; those who do not seek honour are the ones who deserve honour. We think the powerful people are in charge. But Jesus, subverts our usual ways of thinking, saying,
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
I doubt if anyone ever described Winston Churchill as ‘meek’. He was very much a man of the world, a consummate politician who understood power, and how to use it. Yet this week I came across something he wrote which would like to share with you. Here he is on the competing duties which a Member of Parliament has to juggle (and this is quoted on the Parliament website):
The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate… It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there is no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.
So, in the first place, the parliamentarian is to try to do what is right for the country as a whole, secondly to serve his constituents, and only in the third place to serve his party or its ‘programme’. Parties, their policies and their ideals, are an important part of our democracy. But I think the great parliamentarian is reminding us here that each member of his House is there to serve the best interests, not of party, or political dogma, but what he or she believes is in the best interests of all the people. Sometimes politicians should put other loyalties before loyalty to their party. And those principles apply, not just in the House of Commons, but in the local Council chamber, too.
But back to dinner parties. Jesus goes on to suggest that instead of holding a banquet for those who can repay you, you should give a party for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. For Jesus, those who are least in society are the ones for whom God has the most concern.
Yet very often, those who seem powerless and voiceless are ignored by our politics. There seems little doubt that a so-called No Deal Brexit would bring a great deal of hardship to the most vulnerable: sick people dependent on drugs, or those who would find it hard to deal with increased food prices cause by shortages. So it cannot be responsible to defend or promote or minimise the risks of this country simply dropping out of all our agreements and treaties with the European Union. There have been some particularly egregious comments from certain politicians aimed at specialists in, for example, the transport and food industry, and in the medical profession, who have tried to alert us to the dangers. No Deal would mean Britain tear up its international commitments, threatening peace in Ireland, trade in our interconnected modern world, and harming the sick and the poor. Such a course would hardly be, in Churchill’s words, ‘right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain’.
And so for our politicians, national and local, let us by all means pray for wisdom. But not the Machiavellian wisdom which seeks power for its own sake. Instead, let us pray for leaders who seek to serve, and not to be served. Let us pray for politicians who will promote policies which they think will be good for the whole of society, and especially those who are often forgotten. For as Jesus reminds us that when we seek to serve the most needy
you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
For those who would lead nations or communities, real wisdom is learning that humility is wise leadership.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Rory Stewart, The Places In Between, Pan Macmillan, Kindle Edition, Preface
 ibid, pp. 38-39
 Proverbs 25.6-7
 Matthew 20.16
 Mark 10.43
 Acts 20.35 (a saying of Jesus not found in the Gospels)
 Matthew 5.5
 Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament: quoted in ‘Modernisation of the House of Commons – First Report’ (2007) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmmodern/337/33706.htm