September 1, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said]: “But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke’s gospel is full of people watching. He records numerous events where Jesus is present in public—in a synagogue, in a city center, in the Temple, at a banquet. Each time, Jesus is observed and observant. The people watch Him, and He watches the people. The Gospel Reading for this Sunday is one of those events: “One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching Him carefully.” But Jesus is just as observant at that dinner. What Jesus sees leads Him to comment about what was taking place, to speak about the people and about Himself.
The house of this chief Pharisee provides a forum for Jesus to teach: “Now He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noticed how they chose the places of honor….” Jesus observes the jockeying for position that was happening in the Pharisee’s house. All of the guests were attempting to place themselves in seats of honor. They desired to be located in spots where they would be identified as important and worthy of being recognized by the other guests. There was fame to be gained and pride to be boosted.
But when we hear this description of the dinner guests, we should not be surprised. This type of jockeying is not unknown to us. We know how banquet seating can be used to flatter and to pump up people. Think of the business dinners, wedding receptions, civic galas, or other events that you have attended. Whether as host or guest, determining where to have individuals sit is a task that requires great thinking: “What will people think if such a person is seated up front? Can we actually have these two individuals sit together? The high table only has 10 places, who makes the cut?” In the Pharisee’s house, the situation seemed even more cutthroat, since the guests were choosing the places themselves, not being seated.
So what does Jesus say about this? What is His response to what He sees? He tells a parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus’ statement reveals the folly of those who were jockeying for positions. He points out what their pride will gain for them. There is a gamble in feeding their sense of self-importance. A guest takes the place of honor, thinking that he deserves it. But when the host comes with the truly-honored guest and makes the other person moves, all that seemed to be gained is lost. The shameful path from the place of honor to a lesser place will be traveled.
This statement of Jesus echoes the proverb of Solomon spoken nearly a millennia before the dinner in the Pharisee’s house. You heard similar wisdom from the king of Israel: “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 basic premise of this proverb is the same as Jesus’ statement: the shame of being degraded in the sight of important people can be avoided by not being prideful.
But Jesus’ parable in the Pharisee’s house is more than commentary on the social behavior and etiquette. He is telling a parable that reveals something about Himself and the kingdom of God that He is bringing into the world. Jesus speaks a parable that discloses the problem of those who were missing the truth about His identity and not welcoming Him. The wedding feast that Jesus speaks of is more than a reception in Palestine. It is a way for Him to talk about the kingdom of God that was present in His hearers’ midst.
In the religious community, the Pharisees were top of the class. The Pharisees were honored by the people as the religious elite, the ones who displayed the best piety, the best practices of faith. This was not disputed by them. Just the opposite, the Pharisees appeared to revel in it. But despite their position and status, the Pharisees were merely guests to the wedding feast that the Lord was holding. In that light, they were no different than all the other faithful people of Israel. But someone else had come into their presence. The host of the wedding banquet had come invited someone more distinguished, even His own Son.
But the behavior of the Pharisees showed that they did not recognize Jesus’ true status. Even worse, the behavior of some demonstrated that they had begun to think of themselves as the host of the banquet instead of guests. This delusion is why Jesus speaks this parable to them. It is a way of correcting them, so that they would be able to participate in the wedding banquet that the Father would hold for His Son.
So Jesus tells His parable with the closing statement that involves much more than what to do at a dinner party: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That statement describes what the Lord desires to see among people here on earth. He wants people to be humble, to know that they are not deserving of anything good that He gives them. But at the same time that people are humble, the Lord shows grace and mercy to them. What is not deserved is given. Physical life and the support of it, a place in His kingdom and the salvation that comes with it—these are both given by the Lord to individuals. It is not a matter of receiving deserved wages. No, it is a show of divine generosity.
What the Lord desires to see among people here on earth is what Jesus shows in His life. He is the great example of humility. Even though Jesus is the most distinguished person invited to the wedding banquet, what does He do in His life? He humbles Himself. He doesn’t have a place of great honor in the world. Instead, He becomes a servant. Jesus acts for other people’s benefit. He puts their concerns ahead of His. He even suffers abuse and mistreatment for doing so. But this is what Jesus bears to bring salvation, just as the Epistle Writer states: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.”
But after all this is completed, Jesus is exalted. That forms the content of the great statement of faith that we make: ”And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” This is exaltation beyond all measure. The Father gives it to Jesus after He undergoes His great humiliation. But that exaltation will never end and will never be taken away from Him. What Jesus says stands eternally true: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So Jesus observes you and speaks His parable to you. The issue of seating people at a banquet still remains a point of emphasis now in the present day. Likewise, the issue of having a place in the wedding feast—the kingdom of God—that Jesus brings also remains relevant today. Who has a place at the feast? Those whom the Father has invited. That makes it a point of privilege, not right. You did not earn your spot at the table; it was given. You were invited to it. But like the guests mentioned in Jesus’ comments about invitations—“When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”—you cannot repay the Father for being called as a guest. Because Jesus humbled Himself for you and made it possible for you to enter, you were invited to participate in the wedding banquet.
Jesus’ parable calls you away from the thinking that dominated the Pharisees of His day. Being prideful before God is dangerous. Believing that you have nothing wrong with you and need no help, that you and God are basically peers, will lead to a great humiliation. Beginning with shame to take the lowest place could even become not having a place in the kingdom of God. Instead, you are to remember that you are unworthy of anything good, but that the Father has bestowed all that is beneficial to you because of the word that His Son has done. That type of thinking leads to the actions described in the Epistle Reading: “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
There also is the issue of being prideful before others. That also is dangerous. The jockeying for positions at the dinner parties showed that the Pharisees coveted the honor of men. They desired and craved it. And if they could “one-up” anyone, they would do so to accumulate more honor and glory. That is not how it should be within the Church, a community of individuals who are all guests at the divine wedding banquet. Where the stepping on individuals has arisen, it must stop; the Church is not a place for an upward ladder of mobility. Any comparing of how good one is compared to others must come to an end. In its place should be actions that reflect Jesus’ humility, the actions that the Epistle Writer also mentioned: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
That is what this incident at the Pharisee’s house is meant to teach us. Jesus’ statement is just as cutting now as it was then: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” Where it has pricked the conscience, that is His message to humble yourselves—to admit fault, to plead guilty, to confess sin. But the promise given by Jesus is just as comforting now as it was then: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” That is what will happen for you who are saved by Jesus’ humbling Himself to die and rise again for you. The forgiveness that Jesus bestows puts you right with the Father, and so you will be raised and seated at the eternal wedding banquet in the place that He has determined for you.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.