A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (29 August) 2010.
The daily ritual must have been incredibly wearying for the poor driver. Every morning at 8.20, he would approach the bus stop where I was waiting, together with a couple of dozen other young teenagers. In the three years that I was part of the experience, not once did he actually manage to get the bus all the way to the stop, as the herd pushed forward like so many wild animals in a fierce race to be the first at the door. It’s amazing that no one got seriously hurt, or that the driver never actually hit a child in frustration at such idiotic behaviour.
And the price for the winner, the goal of the death-defying race? A place on the back row of seats and the right to allocate the remaining seats as he or she wished. 15 minutes on top of the world, 15 minutes as the king or queen of all that one could survey from the back of that dingy, clapped-out school bus. And the same scenario repeated in a mad gallop across the school playground when the bell went at 3pm. With the hindsight of maturity, it’s amazing that we thought it worth it, that we didn’t see both the stupidity and the comedy of the whole enterprise.
But there was more to this crude ritual. Once or twice, some scrawny first-former would manage to wriggle to the front of the heaving mass and dart to the back of the bus. The moment of triumph would rarely last longer than a few seconds, before the natural order of things was restored and the back occupied by whichever rightful contestant—someone bigger and stronger than the impudent runt—got there to eject the miserable upstart. No one made that humiliating mistake twice.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have a scenario, which looks very different from the school bus crush of my youth: the learned and honoured ranks of a town gathered for a dinner party at the home of one of their number, with Jesus among the quests. However, underneath the respectable veneer, these respectable folk are playing exactly same game. Luke tells us that Jesus “noticed how they chose the places of honour”. This is the polite way of putting it. To be more precise, Luke tells us that Jesus noticed how they kept trying to choose the best seats. There was an outwardly respectable dance as the Pharisees and biblical scholars tried to do subtly what we used to do in the death-defying push for the bus door: to get to the best place, the seat recognised by all as the summit, whose occupier was the king of the castle—by virtue of sitting where he sat.
This is not something that is particularly familiar to us modern Westerners, for whom the social etiquette of the meal table has lost much of its significance. It is mostly at weddings that we still find our ranking published to the present company in the form of the seating orders. However, in the world where Jesus lived, for people who cared about their social standing (which was most people), these things were of utmost importance. A social faux-pas, or a public humiliation, could do huge damage to a person’s reputation and standing in the small and intimate communities where most people lived.
In this light, Jesus’ advice is healthy common sense: instead of risking humiliation by over-exalting yourself, you are better off aiming low. That way, you will avoid the risk of the terrible climb-down, of being put down in your place in front of everyone; and perhaps you will get to experience the opposite, of being elevated to a place of greater honour in front of everyone. It’s sound advice for anyone, and not only in the context of first-century social conventions. Aim too high and you’re set up for a nasty fall; keep your ambitions modest, and you may well be in for a pleasant surprise.
However, to hear Jesus’ words as mere sound advice about how to behave in polite society is to miss the point, and to let ourselves off the hook. What the Pharisees and the lawyers were guilty of wasn’t just unwise or risky behaviour. Their real mistake wasn’t that they were taking social risks, or behaving in a manner unsuited to men of their standing. Far more serious was the way they sought to assert their own honour and prestige at the expense of others by fighting for the outward signs of honour and prestige. They agreed with the society around them that what mattered most to a person in society was their position in that society—that the most treasured thing one could possess was to be held in honour among one’s peers.
And when we see them in this light, it’s not such a great leap to recognise ourselves in the jostling, self-promoting Pharisees and lawyers. The way we judge ourselves, the way we judge others, is by the yardstick of various social and other conventions about what makes a person honoured or worthy. Wealth, education, job, family background, the kind of house or car one has, the kind of company one keeps, fashion sense, accent, nationality, manner, manners, the behaviour of one’s children or grandchildren—the list is endless: little, or not-so-little, markers we use to evaluate ourselves and others; to determine the kind and extent of honour we show to others or expect others to show to us. And so we use them to seek and to allocate the right places in the different circles we occupy in life.
In the same way we, like Jesus’ host on the Sabbath evening and almost any respectable person in that society, we too surround ourselves with people who are either like us, or who can benefit us, or whom we can benefit in some sort of mutual arrangement. Most of the dinner parties we attend or host are likely to look more like the one hosted by the ruler of the Pharisees—a gathering of like-minded people of a similar social standing—than the one hosted by Levi on the day he became a disciple of Jesus—a ragbag of tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners—and Jesus.
Worse still, too many churches are no exception to this rule: gatherings of like-minded people of similar backgrounds—and all too often with the same unwritten rules and pecking orders. Because we are just as beholden to the same worldly standards of what constitutes wisdom, worth, honour and power.
How different things look from Jesus’ perspective! When He watched the dance of the status symbols that Sabbath evening, what he saw was not the aspiration for honour and prestige, the struggle for treasures of precious worth. Rather, what he saw a sad ritual, like a beauty contest in a pigsty or a freedom march in a high-security prison: it made perfect sense within that little world, but was totally ludicrous from an objective, outside perspective. Instead of men of varying degrees of honour, what Jesus saw was a group of modest little men, with much to be honest about, to borrow Churchill’s phrase.
For Jesus sees us as God sees us, since He is God incarnate. The standards of honour and respect that are so cherished to us are of little worth in His eyes, since God sees into our hearts. Hearts, where even righteousness is just so many filthy rags. Try to exalt yourself in God’s company, to present your honour and your worth to Him, and you will find that you will not just be shown a lower seat at the table, but will find yourself thrown outside into the great darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. All the things that we cherish in ourselves and admire in others, are ultimately like us: perishing. And while they may have their value and uses in this life, they are of no consequence at the banquet hall of the kingdom of God. For, as Scripture tells us repeatedly, God shows no partiality, but looks into our hearts. Which is why everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Because we all are humble little people, with much to sin to be humble about.
If we saw ourselves and others from this perspective, perhaps we would be less keen to create and maintain are various pecking orders, less keen to seek the best seats or to make sure that no one steps out of line. After all, none of has much to write home about when it comes to true worth and honour.
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But when God looks at us, He sees us in another way as well. He doesn’t only see the shame that our sins bring on us, the filthy rags of our best moments and all the other moments worse still than the filthy rags.
When God looks at humanity, He doesn’t only see an ocean of sinners: He also sees an ocean of people for whom Christ died. Every person born of a woman: Christ died for every man, woman and child, from the humblest embryo to the President of the United States of America and beyond. He had pity on His creation and sent His Son into the world, into all the humility that is ours as a birthright since the Fall. And Christ humbled Himself, taking on the form of a servant and dying our death on the cross. Not because you’re worth it: you’re not. But because His love for you is so great. And as He is now exalted and has been given a name that is above every name, so that every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father—so too all who are found in Him, united with Him in baptism and through faith, will be exalted and given a place of honour at His victory banquet, when sin, death and the Devil are finally destroyed.
This is how Jesus sees you: a humble little person with much to be humble about—and a precious, rebellious child for whom He died. Jesus did not seek the company of those who were like-minded and of a similar standing to Him. That He had from eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The love of God, like an overflowing spring, cannot contain itself but seeks out creatures to love. He loves us because of His love, even though in ourselves we are as far from lovely as heaven is from earth.
And now we have a seat at the High Table, where every seat is a seat of honour. We already have the honour here and now. Every time we come to Confession and Absolution, the scenario painted by Jesus takes place: we take the lowest place, the place of the wretched sinner, which by right is ours. God looks at us, sees the name of Jesus written on our hearts, and says, “Friend, move up higher.” And so we are honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with us: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven, together with our fellow-saints here and in glory. Thus elevated to the High Table, we feed on the finest food and drink: the very body and blood of Christ, food that strengthens and nourishes, drink that refreshes and gladdens in equal measure.
This is how Christ treats us. Not in order to receive something in return from us, in order to be reciprocated—not even primarily for His own glory (though He is indeed glorious in His display of mercy). Rather He does it for the sake of His love, in order to elevate the humble, in spite of themselves.
In the end, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who humble themselves, because they have much to be humble about, but are exalted to the highest heavens because of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ; and those who also have much to be humble about yet insist on being rewarded on the basis of their merits, in this life and the next. But as far as we are concerned, these two types really belong to one and the same group: those for whom Christ died.
Which is why there is no place for worldly distinctions and systems of honour in the Church: because all have fallen short of the glory of God and are in themselves without honour, and are only made righteous by grace, as a gift, through faith rather than anything they have done. And there is no place for judging people outside the Church by these worldly standards either: because all are sinners, inside as well as out, and because Christ died for all.
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
We—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, unable to repay—are the chief beneficiaries of this policy. Having been loved so, shall we not share the love?
Lord, have mercy! Amen.