15 Pentecost Proper 17C
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 14:1; 7-14 Sermon
August 29, 2010
Hymns: Congregation's choice
(hymn sing Sunday)
OH LORD IT'S HARD TO BE HUMBLE
TEXT (vs. 1 & 7-9): "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 honour at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, 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.'"
Back in 1980, singer Mac Davis recorded a song that made it to number 3 on the charts. One of the verses goes like this: "I guess you could say I am a loner, a cowboy, I walk tough and proud; well I could have lots of friends if I wanted, but then I wouldn't stand out in a crowd. Some folks say that I'm egotistical--hey I don't even know what that means; I guess it has something to do with the way that I look in my Levi blue jeans."
And then it goes into the refrain that made the song famous: "Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way; I can't wait to look in the mirror, 'cause I get better lookin' each day. To know me is to love me, I must be [one fantastic] man; oh Lord it's hard to be humble, but I'm doin' the best that I can."
If you've ever seen Mac Davis, you know that this doesn't really describe him. He's kind of a scrappy, scruffy looking guy, all of about five foot nine inches tall. I wouldn't say he's ugly, but there's nothing really outstanding about his appearance either. He's pretty much your average looking guy; and if you were to pass him on the street, it would be hard to distinguish him from any other 68 year-old man.
But Mac Davis has certainly made a name for himself. He's recorded some 18 albums. He's also been a television and movie actor. And he's sung with people the likes of Crystal Gayle, Nancy Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, and Elvis Presley. He's definitely successful.
So what about this song he recorded, "Oh Lord it's hard to be humble?" Did he write that about himself? No, he didn't. The song was a product of his sense of humor. It's intended to be funny. He wanted to make people laugh.
He intended to poke fun at people who are arrogant, and who think way too much of themselves. And so, he mocks them to the point of almost being absurd.
However, the sad part of all of this, is the fact that there's a lot of truth contained in that song. And even though people might not come right out and say it, they are thinking along those very same lines. Those people can be described as being egotistical and narcissistic. They're pompous and arrogant, and generally have this huge love affair going on with themselves.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is giving us a good lesson in humility. However, he takes a different approach in teaching it. If we look at verse 7 of our Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 14, we read the following: "When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable."
What we would now expect is a story of some sort to follow. In fact, we normally define a parable as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. And Jesus used many parables in his teaching ministry. We have heard such stories as: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Ten Talents, the parable of the Ten Lepers, and so forth.
But here, there is no story! There's no pithy metaphor! That's right! Jesus tells them a parable, but a story doesn't follow. Jesus simply goes on to give some instruction about how to behave at a dinner party, and how to behave when you are giving a dinner party. What kind of a parable is that?
Maybe, just maybe the characters in this parable are characters the likes of you and me. This might be the type of parable where Jesus simply holds up the mirror and asks us to fill in the blanks ourselves. Jesus is holding up the mirror, not to see if we get better looking each day as Mac Davis sings about, but to allow us to take a good look at the pride and arrogance we have in our own lives.
Today we're learning a lesson in humility. If we've been able to see and understand the truth behind Mac Davis's song, then we know that true humility is something that many in our world are lacking.
In the situation Jesus finds himself, he sees a bunch of people scrambling for the seats of honor at the main table, almost like a bunch of adults playing musical chairs. The custom was, that the host was seated at the end of the table. And then, the people were seated in descending order from the host on either side of the table. The more prominent and important guests were the closest to the host, and it went in descending order from there.
So here were these people, trying to get as close to the host as possible, shoving and pushing their way to get where they wanted to be. You can just imagine Jesus standing there, shaking his head as he witnesses this one huge cluster meeting amongst the Pharisees. And so he begins his parable with the Pharisees themselves as the main characters. Jesus says in verses 8 and 9 of our Gospel lesson: "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."
That would be a real blow to someone's ego, wouldn't it? After somebody has fought their way to the most important place at the table, how would they feel if the host made them get up and move to allow somebody else to occupy the seat? That would be totally humiliating.
In verse 11 of our text, Jesus explains what the proper attitude should be. He says, "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." Now that makes a whole lot more sense, doesn't it? If you're invited up to the front of the table, it is an honor; and if you're not, then you haven't lost anything. There's no humiliation or embarrassment, and life goes on.
But this line of thinking isn't without its pitfalls either. Human wisdom looks at this situation as a type of "reverse psychology." People will start to think, "Hey now, I know how to get the best seat in the house! All I have to do is feign a little bit of humility and self-deprecation, and I'll get moved up because of it!" Yeah, leave it up to sinful humans to turn humility into something to brag about. There's an old adage that says, "If you have to tell people how humble you are, then you aren't humble at all."
So how can we more fully understand this parable Jesus is telling us today? How can we bring this into perspective?
The answer lies within the next part of the parable. In verses 12-14 of our Gospel lesson, Jesus continues: "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."
The first thing we must understand from this lesson is that genuine humility does not make comparisons or seek rewards. Anyone who acts humbly because they think that is the way to get ahead, or they think it will make them look better, has completely missed the point. Jesus is certainly not suggesting that we deliberately take the lower seat so that we will be invited up higher. Real humility doesn't think about things like that. Real humility looks away from oneself. Real humility seeks the good of others.
About 15 years ago, I went to a family reunion in England. My parents were there, as was my dad's older brother and his wife. My uncle and aunt brought their 14 year-old grandson along with them too, so he could see a foreign country and meet our more distant relatives.
I can't estimate how many people were there, but it was quite a crowd. They had a huge tent set up, and there were many round tables set up. My one cousin who had organized it, had place cards made up indicating where everybody was to sit. And then, she had this chart she carried with her. If you had trouble finding your seat, all you had to do was ask her, and she could direct you where to go.
So that's what I did. I went to her; she looked, and told me which table I was at. I went to the table, but it was full. I didn't have a place. So I went back again, and she confirmed where I was to sit. She even showed me who else was sitting at the table. So I went back again, and I had no place to sit. I was getting very annoyed, because I wanted to sit down and eat.
Then I figured out what had happened. My aunt had removed my place card and traded it with her grandson's, which was at a different table. I checked the seating chart, and confirmed that. He was supposed to sit with the people his own age. But he was too shy to sit with people he didn't know. So instead, I found myself in the midst of the early-to-mid teen crowd. Even though I tried to be pleasant and cordial, the others at the table let me know that I was very much out-of-place and not welcome. So I wound up bolting my food as fast as I could, so I could get out of there.
That situation made me angry, almost to the point of wanting to go pick the kid up by the scruff of the neck, telling him to get out of my chair and go sit where he belonged, to quit acting like a spoiled little cry baby, and to accept his assigned seat like he was supposed to.
But I didn't. I accepted what had happened, and I dealt with it. Had I made a scene, it would have ruined things for a lot of other people. It was hard to accept it, but it was a humbling experience. This is what I had to do to keep the peace. Even though I found myself where I wasn't wanted and my own pride had suffered a blow, and even if it meant that I had to yield to the selfish actions of a 14 year-old mama's boy, I opted to do the right thing. Yes indeed, real humility means that we have to look away from ourselves, and our own selfish desires.
The final point of this parable deals with one very human concept, and that is our tendency to keep score. When we invite people to dinner, there's this "payback mentality" that exists. If you invite me, then I have to invite you in return; if you give me a Christmas gift, then I have to give you one. That's the way we operate; otherwise how will we know who's ahead?
Jesus has a different idea. "Don't keep score." If you invite the needy, the poor, and those who can't reciprocate, then you won't be thinking about getting paid back. You won't be worried about the score! And then what will happen? The word Jesus uses is translated "blessed," but a better translation would be "happy." You will be happy because they can't pay you back. Regarding this, the Anglican priest Robert Capon writes: "Happiness can never come in until the bookkeeping stops." These are excellent words to remember.
It makes sense, doesn't it? If we could be freed from the necessity to keep score, if we could live our lives trying to welcome people and love people and be kind to people, not because we think we should or because we think it earns us points but because we see them as Christ sees them, then happiness will certainly come.
Don't keep score! Because, you see, it is the way of Christ to not keep score. In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, the Apostle Paul brings this out so well. Verse 19 states: "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them." So, if God doesn't keep score, why should we? When we live by grace, then all the scorekeeping must go right out the window.
Paul continues in verse 21: "God made [Christ Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Through Jesus Christ, all of the score keeping of our sins has stopped. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, all of our sins have been eliminated, irrespective of the number. Through faith in Christ, we are all sitting at the head of God's banquet table.
Thirty years ago, Mac Davis topped the charts with his humorous song, "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way." He wrote this song to poke fun at those who are arrogant, or proud, or generally think way too much of themselves. It was his way of saying in effect, "You're no better than anybody else, so get down off your high horse." And it's true. The higher the podium is that we're standing upon; the further it is to the bottom.
There is no podium that elevates us when we're at the foot of the cross. Jesus comes to us exactly where we are. And when we occupy that position, the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 5 verse 39 that "[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Through faith alone in Christ Jesus our Saviour, God has said to each of us in effect, "You are my beloved child. You belong to me, and nothing can separate you from my love." If that is who we are; if that is truly who we are, then what need do we have for keeping score?
We have everything we need. We are winners already, in God's eyes, and those are the eyes that matter. We've been washed in the Blood of the Lamb, so we belong to Christ forever. Who needs to keep score any longer?