Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone! I hope you are able to find some time to rest and enjoy the break. Even God took the seventh day off! Here is this Sunday’s sermon; have a great week!
SCRIPTURE – Luke 14: 1, 7-14
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 2, 2007
At first glance, it seems like in this story Jesus is offering a lesson on proper etiquette. Don’t confuse the shrimp fork with the salad fork, don’t reach across the person next to you for the salad dressing, keep your elbows off the table, don’t sit in the wrong chair.
The notion of etiquette seems to have gone by the wayside in our society, but even though it may not be obviously apparent, there are still certain rules in our society for how to behave and act properly in certain situations. Dictionary.com defines etiquette as “conventional requirements as to social behavior.” In other words, how not to make a fool of yourself in public.
Jay Leno, ever the etiquette expert, once offered some etiquette advice when it comes to attending weddings. For example, he said good etiquette is politely waiting in the receiving line for 10 minutes to kiss the bride. Bad etiquette is kissing the bride for 10 minutes. Good etiquette is the guests placing their gifts by a sign reading “Gift Table.” Bad etiquette is the groom placing the gifts by a signing reading “Yard Sale.” Good etiquette is the bride and groom thanking Uncle Harold for his check. Bad etiquette is the bride and groom asking Uncle Harold for two forms of ID before accepting the check.
Jesus is also addressing issues of etiquette here, but not social etiquette or wedding etiquette. He’s talking about what my friend David Shirey called “kingdom etiquette.” In other words, there are certain conventional requirements for how Christians are to live out their faith in everyday life.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this teaching takes place at a meal. Luke’s gospel has more meal-time scenes than any of the others. Jesus often makes his most profound statements in the presence of a table of food. One commentator said that, in Luke, Jesus is always either going to a meal, at a meal, or just coming from a meal. It’s good thing he had to walk everywhere or he may not have fit through the tomb door on Easter.
Jesus has been invited to the home of a prominent Pharisee for a meal. A gathering such as this one was not simply thrown together; the crowd did not go through an assembly line scooping out spoonfuls of potato salad onto their paper plates and drink from red plastic cups. These were lavish affairs, formal sit-down dinners with a white lace tablecloth and the finest china.
And with such affairs came certain social conventions. The tables were arranged in a U shape, with the host sitting in the middle of the base of the U. The seats to the host’s immediate right and left would be the seats of honor, and the farther away the seats got from the host, the less important the person sitting there.
So here’s the scene: The party starts, guests are arriving, hors d’oeuvres are being passed around. And as mealtime approaches, Jesus notices that a number of people seem to be making it a point to have their next conversation right near the seats of honor. It’s like a wise preacher who always makes sure that when he says the blessing for a potluck meal, he just happens to be standing right where the line will start. “Amen. Oh! Would you look at that? What divine luck!”
This must have seemed pretty absurd to Jesus, all these prominent religious leaders elbowing and jostling their way to the best seats like a child’s game of musical chairs. So he calls them on it, using one of their own scriptures to expose their game. Proverbs 25 says, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.”
Remember holiday meals as a kid? All your family would be gathered together, and because the dining room table wasn’t big enough, you always had to sit at the kids’ table. The adults would have the fine wooden table with the fancy chairs, and you got the rickety folding card table with the uncomfortable lawn chairs. Do you remember what it felt like when you first got to sit at the adults’ table? Please tell me, because I haven’t gotten to do that yet. What a great feeling, to be elevated to adult status, to leave behind the card table and paper napkins for the big time!
It’s human nature for us to want to sit at the adult table. Can you blame the dinner guests for wanting to be seated next to the host? Why would anyone voluntarily choose the lowest seat, the seat of least importance? As humans, we need to be noticed, we need strokes of affirmation, we want to be told, “You’re important.” Our daughter Molly likes to get into our coat closet and play dress-up with all our winter gear. In the middle of summer she’ll walk into the living room wearing a wool hat, scarf, mittens, and snow boots, and say, “Look at me!”
Think of how many things we say and do in our lives that say, “Look at me!” The house we own, the car we drive, the clothes we wear. It starts at such a very young age. And this isn’t a criticism. We need attention as humans because, without it, we will starve. We need connection, we need community, we need to be liked and accepted. We want others to feel good about us so we can feel good about ourselves. That’s a part of being human.
But there’s a dark side to this need, which is what Jesus is pointing out to the dinner guests. our need to be liked becomes dangerous when it’s at the expense of someone else, when we lift ourselves up by putting someone else down. When we begin to compete for importance, to seek it, someone is always going to end up in the last seat. When we start to puff ourselves up, other people begin to look smaller.
Jesus said, “Go and sit in the lowest place,” and by the way he chose to live his life he showed us that by those words he was referring not to a certain chair, but to a certain demeanor: it’s called humility. It has the same etymological root as “human,” “humor,” and “hummus.” It means “earth.” To be humble is literally to be “down-to-earth.” It’s not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
Practicing kingdom etiquette means realizing that at God’s table, there are no special seats of honor, because every seat is a seat of honor. Jesus is telling the guests that our importance is not derived from what others think of us, but from what God thinks of us. A preacher once said, “Our job is to humble ourselves, and God’s job is to exalt us. If we start doing His job, He’ll start doing ours.”
Jesus emphasizes this point with the advice about who we should invite to dinner. He says we shouldn’t invite people who can pay us back, like our friends and family. Instead, we should invite people who don’t have the means to pay us back: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. A pastor friend of mine said that he once preached on this passage, and the next week he got three dinner invitations. He said he was afraid to ask which of those four categories he fell into.
Both the parable about seating and this story about dinner guests make the same point: in God’s kingdom, everyone is invited. At God’s table, we are all guests, invited there by the host. Who can repay God? And yet, we are each given a seat of honor. You. Me. The homeless man who comes here looking for help. The workers who mow your grass or collect your garbage. Everyone. There are no exceptions. There are no social pecking orders. Everyone.
But isn’t that so different than the culture we live in, which tells us to go for the gold, to reach for our dreams, to crave the spotlight? We are told to be the center of attention, but Jesus says should voluntarily stand on the periphery. But no one on the periphery gets noticed! No one on the periphery gets accolades for their good deeds. Who’s going to applaud me for how humble I am if no one sees me being humble?
And yet, Jesus says, you will be applauded. Not by those you serve, not by those who get lifted up when you lower yourself, but by the One who has invited you – and everyone else – to the table. When we humble ourselves for the sake of others, especially those who would otherwise fall below us, the world may not know, the important people may not know, but God knows.
Jesus tells the guests, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Bible translation “The Message” says it this way: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, you’ll become more than yourself.”
Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else, someone more important, someone more likeable. God made you who you are. Be yourself. And make sure there’s room at the table for everyone else. As we let our actions speak for us, as we answer the call to serve, as we humble ourselves so that others may be exalted, as we simply be ourselves, we become more than ourselves. Thanks be to God.
1 – How would define humility?
2- What’s one thing God has done for you that you cannot repay?
3- What’s something you could do for someone else this week without expecting repayment?