We live in an era where people know no shame. In fact, we live at a time when people can become famous and quite wealthy from doing shameful things. The appearance of the reality TV show “Survivor” in 2000 marked the beginning of a new age in television. Where in the past TV shows involved a script that told a story and actors who played parts, Survivor marked the beginning of a new kind of show in American TV.
Here there are no actors. Instead they are people who are placed into some unique situation or who are featured because their life is in some way unusual. Cameras follow them everywhere and record every moment. And then this footage is edited into a show, often with commentary provided by various individuals who are involved. The television industry soon realized that it had hit upon a gold mine. Because there are no actors to pay, reality tv shows are generally much cheaper to produce. Yet despite this fact, many of them have received huge ratings.
Now of course, “reality tv” isn’t very real. The whole thing is staged and events are scripted in order to provide drama. The shows are edited in a way the produces the most interesting product, no matter whether it reflects reality or not.
In the world of reality tv, shameful and shocking sells. Nicole Polizzi, otherwise known as “Snooki” appeared in the MTV reality TV show “Jersey Shore” which aired from 2009 to 2012. Obscene and obnoxious as she partied, Snooki was the person the public loved to watch because she was so obnoxious. Yet her shameful behavior made her the star of the show and she has parlayed this into a net worth of four million dollars.
The idea that shame can bring fame and wealth would have been unimaginable to the people of first century Palestine. Instead, their entire culture ran on the basis of honor and shame. All of life was about accumulating greater honor, and avoiding shame as much as possible.
This basic truth helps us to understand our Gospel lesson this morning. At the beginning of chapter fourteen we are told, “One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” Now in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has engaged in disputes with the Pharisees in two different settings: meals and the Sabbath. Here in chapter fourteen we find both of these together, so you can be sure that there will be a confrontation.
The Pharisees are watching Jesus carefully. But Jesus is watching them too. Our text tells us that “he noticed how they chose the places of honor.” Now when you go to an event where a meal is served, you probably only care about two things. First, you want to sit with people you know. And second, you don’t want to sit where the food is going to be served last – no one wants to sit there watching other people eat while you wait for your food.
In the first century world of Jesus there were far more pressing concerns. The positions at the table visually demonstrated the social pecking order of the people present. There were spots that accorded the greatest honor. There were spots that revealed you had almost no honor.
Naturally, in general people wanted more honor instead of less honor. But the Pharisees – and remember this meal was being hosted at the home of a ruler of the Pharisees – were particularly focused on this. They were the pious people who went over and above in order to be religious as they followed the traditions of the elders. They were used to receiving honor. And when you put a group of people together who are used to receiving honor, you have competition to receive the most honor.
Jesus saw this going on, and so we learn in our text that he told a parable. He said, “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.” To be told publicly to move to a lower seat would be a humiliating experience. It would bring shame – the very last thing any person wanted.
In order to avoid this our Lord went on to say, “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.” Much like the wise counsel provided in our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs, Jesus tells people to choose the lowest place. This will in fact bring honor, as a person is publically invited to move up to a higher spot.
Our text introduces what Jesus has to say as a “parable.” Now if, when you heard this word, you were looking for an interesting story, like the parable of the good Samaritan or the prodigal son, you are probably surprised and a little puzzled. This sounds more like advice from the etiquette column Miss Manners. But the word “parable” signals to us the fact that there is more going on her than meets the eye. And it is the final sentence of our text that delivers the key to understanding the point that our Lord is making.
Jesus concludes our text by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He describes a great reversal that turns out the opposite of what is expected. Jesus provides this instruction to others. Yet in doing so, he is really describing himself.
Jesus is the one who humbled himself for you. He humbled himself by entering the world in the incarnation and then by not using his powers as God to serve himself. He humbled himself by taking on the role of a servant – the role of the Suffering servant who came to bear your sins. At the Last Supper, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah chapter 53 that spoke of this one as he said: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
Jesus humbled himself because so often you don’t. Instead, you put yourself first. You choose your comfort; your desires; your enjoyment, over someone else and their needs. You do it at home with your spouse, your children, your parents and your siblings. You do it at work with your co-workers, your employer, and your employees.
You don’t want to humble yourself in the way of service. The disciples didn’t want to humble themselves during Jesus’ ministry either. Luke tells us that at the Last Supper, “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” In response 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.”
Jesus humbled himself in the service of dying on the cross for your sins. He humbled himself all the way into a sealed tomb. Yet in the text today our Lord says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus humbled himself for you. And then he was exalted. He was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 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.”
Because this is so, you have forgiveness for all the ways you don’t humble yourself and serve others. In the humility of repentance, you receive our Lord’s forgiveness. As Jesus said about the penitent tax collector in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, “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.”
In humility you are exalted as the forgiven child of God. Because Jesus humbled himself and served you, you now enjoy this status. A Pharisee in our text who received a highly honored place at the table would never give it up. Yet because you have been exalted through Jesus’ saving work, you are now able to humble yourself in the service of those around you. Through his Spirit our Lord enables you to seek the good of others; to put others before yourself; to serve others.
You are able to do this because our Lord has already demonstrated that his words are true. Jesus humbled himself for you and was exalted. Because he was raised up in the resurrection, you know that you will be too. You who humble yourself in the way of Christian service – in the Christian life - will be exalted in the resurrection of the flesh on the Last Day.
And in order to sustain you in that hope; in order to support you in your service as a forgiven sinner, our Lord hosts a meal in his house. He uses bread and wine to give you his true body and blood – given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He is present as the risen Lord in his body and blood, and those who eat and drink his body and blood know that their bodies will be raised on the Last Day. In a few moments he will look out into this house and say to you, “Friend, move up higher,” as he invites you to his table. Here he gives you forgiveness. Here he gives you strength to believe and live his words, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”