READ : Luke 14:10-11
Many of Jesus’ lessons to His disciples came just after He had observed some striking incident. He watched a poor widow cast her two tiny coins into the temple treasury and then noted that she had given more than all the rest. Once when the disciples rebuked parents who had tried to bring their children to Jesus, the Lord saw what was happening. Then He intervened. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). He was always observing the human scene to teach some lesson from life. One day He noticed how the invited guests were behaving when they arrived at a feast. They hurried to claim for themselves places of special honor. The Lord had this to say (I’m reading from Luke 14, beginning at verse 8):
“When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, `Give place to this man,’ 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, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus tells us here something to avoid, something to practice, and then a basic principle underlying both. Think with me about “knowing our place.”
WHAT TO AVOID
Do not sit down, says Jesus, in a place of honor. Let’s say you’ve been invited to a banquet. You arrive there early. You walk into the great hall and see row upon row of shining tables, elegantly prepared. One table set apart from the others on a raised platform is obviously intended for the guests of honor. It might be your tendency to say to yourself, “Well, someone has to sit there. Why shouldn’t I?” So you take your place in the chair at the host’s right, the position reserved for the most distinguished guest. “Don’t do that,” says Jesus. And here’s the reason: Someone more distinguished, more honorable, more eminent than you may be among the invited guests. Your host, who has extended all the invitations, may have prepared this place for him. If that’s the case, you’re setting yourself up for a great embarrassment. The host arrives, notices where you are, walks over to you and says quietly, “I’m very sorry, but this place is reserved for Mr. So and So.”
Now since highly honored guests often arrive late to a banquet, by this time almost all the other seats are taken. The only place left is at the extreme opposite end of the dining room, a great distance away. The food there is not as choice, and the view is non-existent. You’re stationed behind a large pillar. Quite a comedown. You’re almost ready to keep right on walking out of the banquet. You have never been so humiliated in your life.
What’s the point here? Is Jesus concerned about dining etiquette? Does He really want to legislate about where you sit at a party? Or is He talking about something deeper? Surely it’s the latter. Your banquet behavior is saying something profound about your relationship with other people, and with God. Your choice of a place says a good deal about you.
Jesus is telling us something that applies across the board in life, and this is it: Don’t consider yourself more worthy of honor than others. If you do, you’re going to act in a certain way, at a banquet, or on the ball field, in a bank, or wherever. Never assume that you are the most honorable, important person in the company.
This is a bad idea because you have no way of knowing whether that’s actually the way it is. How can you measure your importance or your worthiness relative to that of someone else? It simply can’t be done. It’s especially risky to make the assumption that we are the greatest. There’s always someone turning up who can outshine us, no matter how illustrious we are.
The second objection to this self aggrandizement goes deeper. The entire matter of where everyone sits is at the discretion of the host. It doesn’t really matter how important you think you are or even how the other guests may regard you. Where everyone sits is decided by the host. It’s how he regards us and where he wants us that is all-important.
To take the highest place for yourself shows not only that you consider yourself superior to brothers and sisters but also that you feel yourself able to stand in God’s place and make judgments which are only His to make.
WHAT TO PRACTICE
Here’s what Jesus recommends instead. Go and sit in the lowest place. Take for yourself the most humble station in the banquet hall, the most distant, the most obscure, the most unpretentious. Find the chair where guests of honor are least likely to sit and settle down there. When you do that, you’ll be making a charitable judgment about everyone else invited.
Isn’t that just what the apostle Paul urged his Christian friends to do? Listen. This is from his letter to the Philippians, chapter 2: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). Now Paul doesn’t mean that you should feign humility, pretending that your gifts and abilities are inferior to those of others. He’s talking about your basic attitude toward them, about looking on others as at least as worthy of honor as you are. We’re not talking here about gifts, abilities, or achievements but about being worthy of respect. Why should I take that lowest place? Because I know more about my own failures and follies than I know about anyone else’s. When I consider how far short I fall of what God expects of me, it ought to make me feel like going to the back of the line. Knowing what I do about myself, am I to take it for granted that I’m the best of all? Absolutely not. It’s better to assume, says Jesus, that all the other people invited are doing a better job with the hand they’ve been dealt than I am with mine. They are more deserving of recognition than I.
But it’s even more important to remember that the final decision in these matters is in the hands of the host. When I take the lowest place, I not only honor others, I show respect to Him. I say to God, “Lord, You are the only One who can assign to me my proper place. I want to leave that decision with You.”
If I’m right about my self-assessment, if I really am the least deserving of all, then I can remain where I am in peace, as a man who knows His place. And if it should happen that I’m called up higher, then I’ll have something to celebrate. And I will have let God have His say in the matter. If there’s any exalting to be done in my case, He will be the One to do it. It will be God who justifies me, who declares me worthy and not myself. Whenever the Lord exalts us, we are truly celebrated in the presence of all. If we raise ourselves too high, how can He possibly honor us? If we claim ourselves worthy of the best prize, how can God treat us with grace?
Maybe the deepest truth is that you and I, all of us, really deserve the lowest place. We didn’t even merit an invitation, did we? We were all lost, undone, without hope apart from Him. It’s only mercy that invites us. It’s only grace upon grace that lifts us up. So let’s start where we deserve to be. Let’s kneel at the foot of the cross. Let’s say, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, helpless look to thee for grace, foul I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.” Let’s acknowledge, “Not worthy, Lord, to sit the least and lowest at thy board.”
THE BASIC PRINCIPLE
Now for the principle that underlies all of this. This will remain true when heaven and earth have long since passed away. It’s the word of the faithful Lord. “Every one who exalts himself,” He says, “will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That is as sure as the covenant faithfulness of God can make it. If you lift yourself up, you’re going down. And if you take the lowest place for yourself, you’ll rise higher.
This fills out the message of the parable, doesn’t it? If I look only at this story, I may draw some wrong conclusions. I may decide that the proper strategy for getting into a place of honor is to start out by assuming a lowly station. I may be as proud and self-serving as the next person, only more clever. I’m taking a different road, but I have the same aim. I want to be up there among the great. And if stooping down low is the way to get there, I reason, I’ll get lower than anyone else.
So on the merely human level, this parable could lead people simply to be more subtle in their quest for glory. They learn to abandon the obvious pursuit of prestige for a more cunning approach that will pay off in the end. But Jesus is saying that anyone who tries to exalt himself or herself, anyone who aims, plans, strives, maneuvers for that is going to be brought low. We sometimes distinguish among people by saying that some are proud and some are humble. Some push themselves forward, others hang back. Some brag about their virtues and achievements; others deprecate themselves, saying they’re just not much. It’s closer to the truth, really, to say that all of us are proud. We simply express it differently.
Remember how James and John asked Jesus if they could have the chief seats in the kingdom, could be nearer to Him than anyone else? Were they more ambitious than the others? Hardly. When the ten heard about this, remember, they were indignant against James and John. Why indignant – unless each of the others craved the place of honor, too? I don’t know about you, but I know that in my lifetime, I’ve sometimes been considered humble when I wasn’t really that way at all. I was simply a bit more skilled in concealing my hunger for praise than others may have been. I knew how to give the appearance of lowly mindedness, at least. I shunned the obvious, blatant expressions of pride and tended to feel proud of myself for doing it. Who are the people who try to exalt themselves? To tell the truth, all of us, in one way or another.
Well, what about the other side of it? “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” Who are the people who do that? They are some of those in the first category, some of the proud ones, whose lives then are touched by God’s grace. They come to believe in the marvelous goodness and faithfulness of the One who has invited them. They recognize that they didn’t deserve to be at the feast, and that His invitation was a surprising wonderful gift. They know that they are loved by the Lord of the banquet. He will provide for them and honor them. So they don’t need to be concerned about their place, about scrambling for some position on their own. They know that their sins are many and their unworthiness great, but they also know that the Master of the feast has blotted out all their sins and robed them in the radiant garments of His righteousness. They have nothing to prove over against anyone else. They know that they are simply sinners saved by grace. They don’t need to be higher or better or more noticed than anyone else. They’re genuinely happy to be in the great multitude that no one can number, singing the praises of the Lamb.
There’s the key. These who have learned to humble themselves have learned that in the school of Christ. They’ve trusted in Him as Son of God, Savior of the world. They’ve seen Him dying in their place. They recognized that He bore their sins and carried their sorrows. They’ve bowed before Him in brokenness of spirit and invited the crucified and risen Jesus into their lives. He has breathed His own Spirit into their hearts. Now they’re beginning to learn what it is to humble themselves under His mighty hand. So they’re beginning to be happy with the success and eminence of others and content to leave their own future in God’s hands. And strangely, they, the pardoned proud ones, will be the humble ones whom He chooses to exalt. Alleluia.