A Lesson for the Guests and Another for the Host.
Last week we began to look at this dinner party to which Jesus had been invited along with a number of others. Let me remind you of the essential details.
We probably enjoyed a meal with friends but this meal wasn’t quite like that. As soon as Jesus arrived others began to watch him with suspicion. The scribes and Pharisees who were present kept their beady eye on him: maybe they might find a excuse for doing him down, perhaps they might catch him doing or saying something that would give them the upper hand.
Jesus did not slink away into some quiet corner – it wasn’t his style and there is no indication that he wanted to – after all he had nothing to be ashamed of, his conduct and his teaching were exemplary at all times.
He had hardly got there before he found himself with a sick man standing right in front of him. It was the Sabbath and Jesus that knew his opponents didn’t appreciate the way he behaved on this particular day. But this man was in need. So Jesus took the initiative and healed him while at the same time questioning and challenging his would-be detractors.
And they hadn’t even got to table yet!
Now we can move on and think about what happened next.
The Observers observed
If the scribes and Pharisees thought they were the only ones doing any observing that day they were wrong. Jesus, in his turn, watched them and he noticed something really pretty unsavoury about these men who were, like so many of us, full of their own importance.
The moment had come to go to the table – had a bell rung or a gong sounded or did a servant call out "A table!"? We don’t know what it was but a rather unseemly rush and grab began to take place. Suddenly everyone was on the move pushing and dodging and all with one purpose in mind: they all wanted to secure the best possible place for themselves.
The force that drove them was an unhealthy one and it goes by the name of pride and Jesus was going to speak to them about it.
Pride shows itself in so many different ways doesn’t it?
I remember to my shame some of my behaviour when I was a kid in school – I was a bit like those scribes and pharisees. I wanted the best seat, the nicest text books, the newest pencils etc. so I would do my level best to always get to the front of the queue.
As I was thinking about this I remembered an incident that occurred some years ago now and involved Roman Abramovich the owner of Chelsea football club. Abramovich is a seriously wealthy man and with the proud expectations that accompany such wealth. He once turned up in a restaurant in Italy only to be turned away because the tables were all taken. He didn’t know the restaurant owner very well but still he expected to be afforded special treatment because he was, after all, the mega rich Roman Abramovich. But he didn’t get his way and left the restaurant in a fury.
Pride, pride, pride. How destructive it is! I wonder how it shows itself in your life. How easily it leads us astray and encourages us to pursue the wrong goals in life!
The men that Jesus observed that day, those men who were straining to get the very best place they could so that others might see and appreciate how important they were, these men were about to be told a story. Jesus was about to tell them a parable that was designed to make them realise that God appreciates humility more than he does self-promotion and self-aggrandisement.
The details of Jesus’ story were different from the current setting in which he and his listeners were but not by much. It would not be difficult for his hearers to understand that they were once again being challenged by this man from Nazareth.
Jesus spoke about how they should conduct themselves when they were invited to a wedding feast. And his parable contains two parts each beginning with "when" or "whenever":
vv.8-9 focuses the attention upon the negative. This is how you are not to act when invited to a wedding.
v.10 turns to the positive – this is how you are to conduct yourselves when you are invited to that wedding.
They mustn’t to try to grab hold of the best seat in the vain hope of securing a little temporal and passing "glory". And why not? Because it could well be that the host had invited someone more important than them to the feast. If such were the case imagine the shame of being publicly told to give up his place to another who was thus openly acknowledged as being more important than you. And even if no-one more important was invited the "glory" of such a seat would be short-lived indeed, lasting only as long as the feast itself.
At that moment, Jesus added, instead of occupying an important place they would have to take the lowest place of all. Why the lowest you might ask. A couple of possibilities can be suggested:
quite probably the other seats would be full by then
fear of it happening again might preclude the choice of anything other than the lowest place – you can’t be told to be moved lower if you’re already there!
So how should they behave? Jesus urged his hearers to act in a humble manner and instead of fighting for the best seat to rather choose a lowly one. From such a position the only possible way is up. And then what honour to be publicly singled out by the host in front of the all the gathered guests and openly accorded a seat of importance! That is the better way according to Jesus.
Now what are we to make of that? Are we to understand Jesus as doing nothing other than giving some home-spun advice about how to make the best use of such opportunities? Was he really only laying out a few rules of social etiquette?
While some have tried to suggest that this was the case it is clear that Jesus has something far more important in mind. After all we have already been told that what he said was in fact a parable. And a parable is a simple story that carries spiritual meaning and which conveys spiritual truth. Jesus means his hearers and us to take something spiritual from his story.
And in fact he makes it really rather easy for us to do that because he ended his little story with a short explanatory maxim. You can find it in v.11:
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Jesus repeated this statement on a number of occasions – it obviously contained an important truth.
You must be Humble
The theme of humility is an important one in the Bible. We need to be reminded about it often as by nature we are proud people and all too often think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We may well protest that we are not and then cite our weaknesses and failures as proof – but we begin to see our true colours when someone else begins to talk about our weaknesses and failures. How defensive we then become, how we like to excuse ourselves then.
A few chapters further on in Luke 18 we will come across another of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the Tax collector and the Pharisee. Jesus told that story to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. In that story Jesus spoke about a man who was very impressed with himself. In fact he was so impressed with himself that he couldn’t imagine God not being impressed with him too! Jesus however tells us that the one who returned home with divine blessing and approval was not that proud religious man but the humble tax collector. It was the one who recognised that he didn’t deserve anything from God who did in fact receive everything that God had to offer!
Jesus would end that parable too with the same words:
Lk.18:14 "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Jesus repeated this teaching over and over:
he would have to warn the scribes and the Pharisees that they were barking up the wrong tree when they tried to make out that they were important people.
he taught his own disciples to be humble like little children.
he taught his disciples that they would have to behave as humble servants if they were really wanted to become great
he taught his disciples that he was indeed their Lord and Master but the example he left them to follow was that of a servant who served: he was prepared to stoop lower than any of them in order to carry out the necessary service. You’ll remember perhaps that occasion when all the disciples knew their feet needed washing but none was prepared to bemean himself with such a task; it would send al lthe wrong signals to the others – but Jesus didn’t hesitate!
How important this humility is if we are to have a right relationship with God. The Scripture gives us both warning here and encouragement as well as clearly instructing us what we ought to do:
1Pet.5:5-6 "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you."
We’re not told how those presented responded to what Jesus had to say to them – it really was direct and clear. Did they object to having their behaviour criticised in this way? Did they think that Jesus’ advice was completely off-the-wall and totally unrealistic or did they admit the truthfulness of it all? Would they seek to adjust their behaviour?
We don’t know, nor do we need to know how others respond. What is far more important is for us to respond properly. Have I taken on board Jesus’ teaching about the need for true humility in my life? And have you in yours?
A Message for the Host
The NT instructs Christians to be ready to give an answer for the hope that they have. The Christian then will want to be able to make the most of opportunities that come his or her way. Jesus here in this incident has left us with a wonderful example from which to learn.
The day and the presence of the man with dropsy provided him with his first opportunity: he performed a good deed in healing the man and carefully explained what kind of action was in closest harmony with Sabbath day observance.
Next in watching his fellow guests fight over the most honoured places he told a pointed story designed to challenge his hearers over the fundamental question of humility.
He will go on, while seated at a banquet, to tell another story about another banquet – a story designed to make his listeners stop and think about the Kingdom of God and whether or not they were truly responding to the invitation to feast in that Kingdom.
But before he does that he takes just a few moments to address some words to his host that day.
It would appear that this particular man was well-used to organising feasts and banquets and it would appear that he invited large numbers of people to take part in them.
Surely this is a good and a commendable thing to do. Surely Jesus is not going to criticise him for such generosity is he?
But it is possible to do something that in itself is good but to do it in the wrong way and with wrong motives and expectations.
In fact it is quite possible to do something good with the expectation of being rewarded for it subsequently. And that is what this man was doing. The fact that Jesus picks up on the idea of reward strongly suggests that this man was carrying out his duties with a view to being rewarded. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with looking for a reward either. But there is a problem when the reward our eyes and efforts are actually focused upon prevent us from receiving the greater, more necessary reward from God himself.
Here the Pharisee in question appears to have shown generous hospitality to his own friends and relatives. He had invited rich neighbours too. These were exactly the kind of people who would welcome him too into their homes and to their feasts. Yes, he would be well spoken of by them; yes, he would eat well in their homes sharing in their banquets but if he thought by doing that he was in line for further blessing he had another think coming.
Such generosity and such hospitality was ultimately self-serving and self-seeking and couldn’t expect further reward from God. Jesus didn’t mean to say to the host that he must never invite his friends or his family members of his rich neighbours for a meal but he must realise that this is not a way of somehow putting God in his debt.
Instead Jesus urges his host to be generous in a disinterested way – don’t only invite those from whom you fully expect to receive an invitation in return. Rather give generously to those who can’t repay and then God, who is no man’s debtor will know what to do. There is a reward to gained at the resurrection of the righteous – how sad to miss out!
Some Concluding Thoughts
Do you notice as we close how easily Jesus introduces spiritual material into his conversation? Here he speaks so easily and naturally of the resurrection – he knew it was going to take place and urged men to live their lives in the light of that great day.
My friends are you living your life like that? Are you ready and prepared for that great day of resurrection? What will be your answer to God then who will ask you what you have done with the life he gave you? What will you answer when he asks you what you have done with the gospel he has arranged for you to hear? What will you answer when he asks you what you have done with his Son whom he sent to be the Saviour of the World?
May the Lord teach us to think about ourselves with right judgment and not to have inflated views of our worthiness. The Bible’s teaching on humility fits perfectly with what it has to say about salvation being by the free grace of God. If you think you deserve God’s favour because of something that you have done you just haven’t begun to understand that "all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" or as "filthy rags" in God’s sight, as the prophet Isaiah put it.
But the good news is he doesn’t expect us to somehow wash those rags ourselves instead he offers us a full set of clean clothing in the gospel – so repent and with humility "put on Christ" and covered with his righteousness you will be ready for that great day.
And to God alone be the Glory.