Note: A guest speaker was at Grace UMC and so there is no manuscript. Below is the message given by Pastor Chuck at Albert Paine United Methodist Church in Painesdale, MI. Bulletins from both churches have been included.
The Lectionary Bible readings today teach a very distinct dichotomy between inappropriate pride and properly understood godly humility, and the results of each working in our hearts.
Jeremiah describes a pride that pulled people away from God to rely on priorities, strategies and systems that are broken. (Jeremiah 2:10c-13). The Psalmist on the other hand, though surrounded by such people, continues to proclaim his faithfulness and asks God to deliver him from such dangerous temptations and keep him humble… (Psalm 25:8-10, 40:9-13)
In Hebrews, this humility leads to loving hospitality and avoiding relying on greed and status seeking and being content with God’s help and presence and willingness to help others. (Hebrews 13:1-2, 5-6, 15-16)
Then in our primary reading for the day, Jesus takes advantage of observing a pride-filled situation to explain his take on the need for humility.
Bible Reading Luke 7:1,7-14
- On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely... 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (NRSV)
MESSAGE “Honored Guests, Honored Hosts” Normal Jewish custom at this time was that there were two meals a day, one prior to noon which they called breakfast, and the principal meal that was eaten during the later afternoon hours which they called lunch or dinner. The exception was on the Sabbath, when the day prior they prepared for three meals, and the principle meal was after the morning religious services that concluded around noon.
At this special meal it was common to invite guests. Jesus is invited to the meal of a religious leader, along with some of the host’s Jewish leader friends, and they were watching him closely. This was not because they were star struck over this upstart highly popular rabbi. They were looking for him to do something wrong over which they could then complain and discredit him. He didn’t let them down.
Either by arrangement or coincidence someone with a disease was in the house when Jesus arrived. Jesus healed him, arguing that (even) based of Jewish law and tradition, the Sabbath was designed for humanity’s good, and therefore deeds of mercy (even non-emergencies) are always in proper order. The Pharisees knew that their arguments would fall flat, so they remained silent. The people then began to find their places for the meal and today’s text resumes with Jesus making a few observations of his own about them.
Jesus notices the various leaders ambitiously scrambling for the most honorable places. Jewish custom at the time is that the people reclined on couches made for 3, the couches were arranged in the shape of a “U”, and the couch at the base of the “U” was the most important, with the person reclining in the middle of that couch as the one with the highest honor. The one reclining behind him and to his left is the second most important and the one reclining to his right and in front of him as the third important. With this arrangement of people rank on each couch, then the couch to the left of this center couch was the next important, the couch to the right the next… Since this was an important Pharisee’s house, something like this was probably the arrangement. But Palestine was multi-cultural, so there may have been some variations, and we can’t be sure exactly what that may have looked like. It isn’t important that we remember all that. What we need to understand is that there were specific places of honor. They knew where these places were, and they were scrambling to obtain them.
Jesus sees this. Since the healing had somewhat silenced everyone, he takes advantage of it by tactfully telling a parable about a wedding feast – a different and more formal banquet, drawing them in to the story, allowing them to see the truth before realizing it was being applied to them. The principles still apply today.
Even today, if we are at a wedding, and not a part of the wedding party, we would not even think about sitting at the head table that is reserved for the wedding couple and those that stood with them in the service. We would not think of sitting at the close tables where parents and immediate family are usually seated. Luckily, in most weddings, these special tables are labeled so there is no confusion.
But imagine someone who knew better, did sit in the groom’s spot while all were still waiting for the wedding party to conclude picture taking and arrive at the banquet hall. Once the groom arrived, not only would that person have to be removed from place of honor, but because the hall has now been filled with people, they would have to sit about as far away from the place of honor as there can be, if there is even a seat available at all. How embarrassing would that be! The Book of Proverbs, 25:6-7 names the principle just as clearly:
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before his nobles. (NIV)
Better to find a place where you can fit in with stability than to presume to be higher than you are and ever so briefly grab the honor (or the power) before being permanently demoted. Better to pick a lower place setting and allow the host to call you up to a higher place of honor.
We could take this very literally and equate it with simple table manners: Don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t use your pants as napkins, don’t used hands to grab food off the public food tray, don’t double dip the mozzarella stick in the community bowl of marinara sauce, and don’t sit at tables where you don’t belong.
But Jesus is going much deeper than “you should observe the proper social mores”. We know this because he is telling a parable, which by connotation means a simple common-sense story meant to convey a deeper meaning. And we also know it because he concludes the story by naming the deeper meaning. Jesus is not advocating a political game where we pretend to be humble as a path to promotion. He is trying to teach true humility – an attitude that will make the banquet a cooperative and refreshingly joyful experience rather than the combative and emotionally draining experience of self-serving pride. This was the attitude that was causing the chaos Jesus was observing as everyone was fighting for the best seat. It was as if they began the event by playing musical chairs and the music had just stopped. Do you remember that game? Run, bump, push and scramble -- and if you are not faster and more aggressive than others, you will be excluded from the group. Isn’t that a “lovely thing” to teach our young ones…
This is not just about banquets, the job market, or other formal situations. It is about human relationships in general. What would life be like if people didn’t feel the need to knock others down to feel better about themselves (or for any other self-serving reason)? What if people didn’t feel they had to isolate and reject and throw people down, so they move one more step up the proverbial ladder of success -- to ultimately become king of the mountain?
Even if we do manage to get the last musical chair, or reach that pinnacle position, it can at most bring a very temporary joy. It will soon become stressful because everyone climbing that mountain is working to unseat you from your throne. Liken it to the usurper who took the groom’s chair – it may feel fun and glamorous at first. But let that person look around. Everyone in the room will despise the obnoxious gall of that inappropriate position grabber. They all will be relieved when someone official finally puts that person in their proper place.
We all have different skills, different personalities, different roles – and too often we compare and contrast all these differences and tend to rank them as more important and less important, and compete for the highest places, and act like we need some people and not others, or on the flip side, we feel everyone else is more important and therefore we are not needed nor wanted.
But in God’s kingdom, instead of competing, God sees the heart, and gifts us as he sees fit, and places us just as he desires is best for us and for the whole. He sees all these differences as a way of cooperative meshing us all together like the equally important teeth on interacting gears – if everyone plays the role they were designed for, the gears move smoothly and efficiently, faithfully and happily. If cogs are missing, at best we get an inefficient jerky movement as the teeth grind unhappily against each other.
This is what was happening in the Corinthian church. They competed and ranked each other based on their perception of their role and talent. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains that every role was important to the successful function of the body of Christ. He reassures some people of their critical role when they were made to feel they didn’t belong. Then Paul turns to those whose self-proclaimed importance made these people feel unwanted and reminds them how critical the humble are to the whole group.
Likewise, Jesus sums his parable in verse 11, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (NRSV)
But this verse also introduces his following conversation with this important host about who he should be inviting to his special feasts.
Jesus puts it in blunt terms to make the point. When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite friends and family and rich neighbors. People who will do the same for you, thus you help propel each other to the places of prominence. Instead, Jesus says, invite those people who cannot return the favor, and then God will reward you for your hospitality to those that most others reject as unneeded. Rejected and ignored because they are in no position to help anyone climb their ladder up to their mountain peak throne.
Remember, Jesus was invited to this Pharisee’s house with all his powerful religious friends to catch Jesus in a flaw that could be used to discredit him. They were thinking of what that could do for their status in the established religion, who saw Jesus as an enemy and threat to their faith.
Jesus isn’t saying it is wrong to invite family and friends and rich people. (James, in James 2:1ff mentions this too – there is nothing wrong with treating rich and important people well, as long as you are treating “poor” people just as well). But if you treat them differently, then your hospitality has taken a form of “I’m being nice to you so I can get something from you” -- and God wants us to love our neighbor -- if they can return the favor, or if they cannot.
Just like in the parable, Jesus is trying to get underneath surface. He wants us to get beyond the “who it is” as to the “why it is them you invite”. He is looking for the motivation for the invitation. The highest form of the gift of hospitality is not about politics – about wanting something from your guest, or “I’ll scratch your back so you can scratch mine”, or “I’ll invite you so I can discover your weaknesses to exploit for my own gain.” Instead, our hospitality is grounded: not out of duty, not out of self-interest, not to feel superior, not even to feel more saintly for our gracious deeds. It is rooted in a sharing of God’s love, who calls us to share that love with all people regardless of our perception of them, other people’s perception of them, or even their perception of themselves; for that is what God did and does for us.
Christ does not invite us to the Communion table, into the heavenly family, because we have achieved a status of goodness or because we will someday be able to pay him back, (we could never do either) but because he loves us and wants to empower us to love others because he (first) loved us.
Prayer Let’s pray. Hospitable God, you invite us to a banquet where the last may be first, where the humble and the mighty all find a happy place. You have honored us by calling us to be your people. But too often we have taken your glorious grace and exchanged it for other priorities-- relying on broken systems that cannot contain you, the fountain of living water, and are powerless to save. We are tempted to do this because we are so surrounded -- and seemingly overpowered -- by such systems of sin and evil that often appear to prosper, and our hearts become discouraged and fail us.
Lord, when we fail, do not withhold your mercy, rush to deliver us and help us and keep us safe in your compassionate faithfulness. We can count on you because you are good and worthy of our trust. You instruct the humble in your ways, and all your paths lead to your love and forgiveness, to your covenant and your will.
By faith in your grace, let us receive again your gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that nourish our faith as we remember what you have done for us in your love for the world.
Each day we witness works of your love. Some are spectacular, many are quiet and soft like a gentle mother's whisper filled with beauty and wonder. We ask that you use us to reach those needing to experience the miracle of your love. Let us share your abundance with no fear of scarcity; let us greet strangers as angels you have sent! In Christ's name, we pray. Amen.
Benediction (Closing Blessing) Now may the God of peace make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working within and through us what is pleasing in his sight. Amen.