I played the majority of my baseball during the 1980’s, with my last year occurring at Concordia College in Ann Arbor, MI in 1992. During that time I had one real baseball hero: Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg played second place for the Chicago Cubs, and even a Cardinals fan has to agree that he was a great player.
Sandberg won the Silver Slugger award seven times as the best offensive player at his position. When he retired he had set the record for homeruns by a second baseman, and when he hit forty homeruns in 1990 he became just the third second baseman in history to hit forty homers in a season. Sandberg could hit, and he hit when it mattered – his post-season batting average was .385.
Sandberg was a very good a hitter. However, he was an even better fielder as he won nine consecutive Gold Gloves and had a career .989 fielding percentage – a record for second basemen. “Ryno” as he was known won was named the 1984 National League MVP – an award that was probably clinched by what is known in Chicago simply as “the Sandberg Game.”
In 1984 the Cubs were competing for their first division title since 1945. The St. Louis Cardinals game to town in the heat of the division race. It was the NBC Game of the Week on TV. With the Cubs down 9 to 8 in the bottom of the ninth Sandberg stepped to the plate to face closer Bruce Sutter. Sutter had been once been a Cub, and was a dominant closer, getting 45 saves that year.
However on this day Sandberg hit a homerun to tie the game and send it into extra innings. In the tenth the Cardinals scored two runs. Sandberg again came to the plate in that inning to face Sutter with a man on base. In a moment filled with drama, Sandberg again homered off of Sutter and Bob Costas who was calling the game exclaimed, “Do you believe it?!” The Cubs went on to win the game and the divison.
Ryne Sandberg was a great player – he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. But the thing I really admired about Sandberg was that he was such a humble player. Sandberg never called attention to himself. On the field he went out and played the game the right way. He let his hitting and fielding do the talking. Of the field he was quiet person who never said anything to take the spotlight.
Humility is in short supply today among our sports and entertainment celebrities. Instead, in them we see writ large the character of our times. We live in the age of the “selfie” and Twitter and Instagram – an era when people are calling attention to themselves all the time. Life is a competition to see who can get the most attention - even if someone is famous because they are infamous.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, our Lord teaches us that this is not the way things are to work for those who believe in Jesus Christ. Instead Jesus’ way of doing things turns everything upside down – it is the exact opposite of the world. Jesus tells us that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is the way that Jesus has acted for us. And now we are called to live in this way too.
In our text, Jesus is eating on the Sabbath in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees. The Pharisee probably had Jesus there for two reasons. First, Jesus was a religious celebrity. But more importantly, this was an opportunity for the Pharisees to catch Jesus in something, and we are told that they were watching him carefully.
However, Jesus was watching them too. He noticed that everyone was jockeying for the best spots at the meal – the place of honor. Status and honor were huge in the first century Palestinian world. They were communicated in a variety of ways, including very clear social expectations about the seating arrangement at meals.
Jesus used the opportunity to tell a “parable.” Now we are used to a parable sounding like the parable of the prodigal son or the good Samaritan. We expect a story. However the word “parable” has a much broader meaning, and its use here signals the fact that what our Lord has to say goes beyond the topic it addresses. Jesus may be talking about table etiquette, but in fact he is teaching about something far more profound.
Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. The Lord says that a person shouldn’t be presumptuous and take a place of honor at the table, because someone with more status may have been invited. If that happens, the person will face the humiliation of publicly being sent down to a less honorable spot.
Instead, Jesus teaches, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” Jesus says to take a place at the table beneath one’s station, because then the person will receive the honor of being invited in the presence of everyone to move up higher to a more honorable position.
Now all of this is sound advice. But in his explanation at the end of our text we begin to realize that Jesus is actually speaking about so much more. Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This phrase signals the true meaning of the parable. Later in this Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees boasts in prayer about how great he is – so much better than the tax collector over there. On the other hand the tax collector would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And then Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Our Lord says that those who humble themselves receive forgiveness. Those who confess their sin and repent; those who turn alone to Christ in faith have their sins taken away.
Of course, that’s the challenge for you. You live in a world that has little place for humility. It has even less for the idea that there are thoughts, words and actions that are wrong – that are sinful. The world is all about your “rights” – your right to do what you want; your right to be what you want. The only real limitation you face … is you.
And yet, this way of life brings grief and pain. For you see when you choose to do things “your way,” you often reject God’s way. And because God is the One who set up the way things work, you can’t escape the consequences of your actions. Your way hurts family and friends as it fracture relationships. Your way alienates you from God, and because you were created for fellowship with God it can only leave you with a gnawing emptiness. As St. Augustine wrote, “The heart remains restless, until it finds its rest in God.”
Because we act in this way, the Son of God humbled himself. Sent by the Father in the incarnation, he lived in this world and did not use his power to help himself. Instead, he helped others. He willingly walked the way of suffering that led to the cross and there he died for sins that he had not committed. He received God’s wrath and punishment against your sin and in doing so he has won you forgiveness. Then on the third day he rose from the dead as he defeated death, and in his ascension he was exalted to the right hand of God. The One who served in humility now rules in might.
Because he is the crucified, risen and exalted Lord, Jesus now gives forgiveness to all who humble themselves. Peter and the apostles proclaimed after the ascension of Jesus that, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Our Lord calls sinners to repentance. As he said during his ministry, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus calls sinner to repentance. He calls them to humility, so that he can exalt them with forgiveness.
However, the truth of this morning’s parabolic statement goes beyond repentance and forgiveness, because that forgiveness is the foundation for a new way of life. Jesus humbled himself for us and served. At the Last Supper, as Jesus was about to serve us in suffering and death, his disciples began to argue about who was the greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Our Lord humbled himself for us, so that now we can humble ourselves for others. We have been served, so that now we can serve others in our family, in our school, in our workplace and in our congregation.
This humble service is not something we can do on our own. Instead, the One who humbled himself for us enables us to live in this way through the work of his Spirit. On the day of Pentecost the ascended Lord gave the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter declared, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
Christ has given us his Spirit through whom we have been born again in Holy Baptism. The resurrection power of the Spirit who raised Christ is now at work in us so that we can render humble service to others.
In doing so, we follow the way that Jesus has set before us. And like Jesus this way of humility doesn’t remain in humility because God is a God who works a great reversal. As Mary said in the Magnificat, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Those who walk the humble way of service in Christ receive the exaltation of the resurrection and life with the Lord on the Last Day. As Jesus says in our text this morning, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”