“Humility at the Feast”
So the scene today is a dinner party on a Sabbath day, probably after the weekly synagogue meeting, in which Jesus is invited to dine with some Pharisees in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees. But this was no mere social event. The pleasantries and hospitality were colored by the shadow of the Pharisees' glare. Luke says, “they were watching him closely”. Jesus is under the microscope.
Who knows what legalisms and protocols there were to follow in that gathering? But be sure, the Pharisees were very concerned that everything be done the right way, just so. The food would have been prepared a day before, so as not to “work” on the Sabbath. They had laws upon laws to help them get everything right, and they followed them closely. “But what about Jesus? We've heard some strange things about him and his teaching?” And likely this dinner gathering was as much as anything, a chance to trap him. To catch Jesus saying or doing some pharisaical no-no. An opportunity to gather ammunition for the confrontation that was sure to come.
And, behold! Look! Luke, says, “there was a man with dropsy.” That is, a fluid build up or edema of some kind. Perhaps this was one of the servants who would have tended to the meal. Jesus shows his characteristic compassion and heals the man, but not without also teaching the Pharisees a lesson. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Silence. Crickets. Now they are the ones in the trap. But he presses them more, “Which of you, if your son, or even your ox, falls into a well on a Sabbath day, will you not pull him out?”
This same Jesus would later clarify that the Sabbath was made for man. But these Pharisees got it backwards. Their whole approach to the Sabbath, indeed their conception of God himself, was entirely upside-down. Their religious observances and self-righteous piety were absolutely backwards. And Jesus is here to set them straight. And you and me, too.
He goes on to tell a parable. He sees the way these proud men are jockeying for position – seeking the higher and more honorable places at table. It's one of the favorite past-times of the sinner. Comparing our status with others. Keeping up with and surpassing, if we can, our neighbors. Making ourselves look good. Looking out for #1. A selfishness and self-righteousness that rears its head in multiple ways, but always lurks in our dark heart. And at our core, we would even de-throne God himself if we could. It's the original temptation. “You will be like God...”
Surely Jesus knew the Proverbs, and well could have had in mind this reading from our Old Testament passage today:
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.
But there is a deeper point here, too, than just a lesson in etiquette. This is not Jesus acting like Miss Manners. He's striking at the sinful pride of each of us. He's pulling the rug out from under us who think we are something when we are nothing. The Pharisees needed to hear it.
You and I need to hear it, too. You don't deserve to be at the head of the table. You don't qualify for the place of honor on the right hand of the host. Your sins make you unclean, and not just in a ritualistic pharisaical sense. We're talking about a blackness of the soul.
But our delusional self, our puffed-up pride wants to bend reality. Put all the perfume you want on a corpse, it still lies dead. Put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn't make a pig a prom queen.
Rather, take the lowest seat at the table. And you will find yourself exalted. Or even better, be like the gentile woman who confessed herself a dog, but whose faith looked for the crumbs that fell from the master's table. Jesus not only granted her request, but commended her great faith! “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. And everyone who humbles himself will be exalted”.
And Jesus Christ knows about humbling oneself. He is the grand-master of humility. He came from the highest throne of heaven to take up residence in an animal feed trough. The Son of God became a man, and a simple, humble man at that. He had no place to lay his head. He had no particular beauty or majesty that we should regard him. He ate with sinners, associated with fishermen and tax collectors, and even stooped to wash their dirty, stinky feet.
He put aside his rightful crown of glory in exchange for a crown of thorns. He swapped the praises of the seraphim for the fellowship of condemned criminals. And this man of sorrows, when you think it couldn't get any lower, saw his own Father turn his back on him in the darkest moments of his suffering. And then Jesus died. Death is the great humiliator of all men. It brings us all low. He didn't even have his own grave, but had to rely on the kindness of others to provide this last bit of respect.
All this he does for you. His humility is your exaltation. His making himself low, brings you up, from the dregs of sin, from the darkness of death, into the light of eternal life and heavenly bliss. He took his seat at the very worse place – on the cross – to procure for you even a place in heaven, and a crown of righteousness.
And having been thus exalted, having seen the loving humility of Christ which brings us from sin's lows to heaven's heights, our love for the lowly can only grow.
In this last section of the reading, Jesus imagines the one who hears these words of his throws a banquet of his own, and invites some unusual guests. Not the high and mighty, the noble and the powerful. Not those who can do something for me, or bring me some benefit. But rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, for they cannot repay you. And you will be blessed!
What a radical shift of world-view! But isn't this what has first been done to us? Weren't we, already, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? And hasn't Christ invited us to his banquet, and called us from the lowest place at the table to his very side? Now, you, go and do likewise. Show the love for others that has been shown to you. And let God sort out the rewards at the resurrection. Exalt the humble. Regard the lowly. Serve the undeserving, for so it has been done to you.
And so it is, even today, when we gather for the meal that Jesus sets before us in his Sacrament. Here we come in great humility, confessing our sins. With contrite hearts, and bended knees, we take our lowly places at invitation to his table. And he will lift you up. For here your sins are forgiven. Here are far more than crumbs from the master's table, but a feast of heaven's finest food. The very bread of life. Here is Jesus, for you.
Lay aside your sinful pride, turn from it, and come in repentance to the feast. Take the lowest place, the place of the sinner, and see how Christ will raise you up. For he became lowly, that you might attain heaven. And he calls you to humble service of others, for his name's sake. Repent and believe live in him. In Jesus' Name. Amen.