When you are eating with a group of people who are not family members, I doubt that you give all that much thought to where you are going to sit. Any consideration you do give probably doesn’t go any farther than that you want to sit with people you know and with whom you want to visit.
Our Gospel lesson this morning tells us that things were very different in the first century world of Palestine. The ancient world was very concerned about status. Now it is not as if we are unaware about status. We recognize that there are neighborhoods, universities and occupations that carry more status than others. But our experience of this really can’t compare with the way the ancient world valued status – how it desired to possess it and have it viewed by others.
We see this today in the fact that places at a table eating were assigned specific levels of status. Jesus notices that everyone at the meal is choosing the places of honor. There is a scramble to get the best seat possible. And here “best” is determined by the status that the seat displays to others. A meal is an occasion to show others where you stand in society – an opportunity to show that you are more important than others.
Our text begins by saying, “One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” Now by the time we have arrived at this point in the Gospel, we know that there is going to be trouble. The Pharisees have already watched Jesus to see if he will heal on the Sabbath. The Sabbath has been a source of controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees on a couple of occasions. Jesus has also dined twice at the home of a Pharisee, and each time there has been conflict. So, when Jesus goes to eat, at the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, on the Sabbath … buckle up, because we know that things are going to get rough.
Not unexpectedly we learn that that Pharisees were watching Jesus carefully. A man with dropsy – severe edema – was present. On this occasion, Jesus took the initiative by asking: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” The Pharisees could see that their own legalism was being set in contrast to mercy and so they remained silent. Jesus healed the man and sent him away.
Then he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Jesus knew that the Pharisees made exceptions for this kind of action. His argument goes from the lesser to the greater. If they were willing to allow this kind of action in assisting on the Sabbath, how could they not allow the healing of a man? Our Lord had the Pharisees caught in the inconsistency of their laws and hatred of Jesus. They knew it, and they could not reply to these things.
The Pharisees were watching Jesus closely. But we learn in our text that Jesus was watching them too. He noticed that they were all choosing the places of honor. So he spoke words that our text calls 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 choose a place of honor, and then to be forced publicly to move to a lower spot would have been humiliating.
So instead, Jesus gave this advice: “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.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke describes Jesus’ words as a “parable.” We may find this puzzling because we often assume that a parable is story that Jesus tells in order to teach some deeper meaning, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan that we had in the Gospel lesson not long ago. But the word “parable” actually has a broader meaning. It can be applied to any saying or statement that is intended to convey something that goes beyond the surface meaning.
Jesus is teaching about far more than meal etiquette. The Pharisees’ actions reveal something about their attitude and character. Jesus had already said in chapter eleven, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” The Pharisees thought that they were better than other people, and they wanted people to see their status. They wanted to call attention to their status in public settings.
As fallen sinners, we always face the temptation to think we are better than those around us. We often have an innate desire to compare ourselves to others. And we feel better about ourselves when that comparison reveals that we are superior to others in some way. I have a better job. I have more money. I have more education. I have a better house. I get better grades. I am better at sports. Feeling good about myself means putting the other person down below me.
Of course, this strategy can backfire. Because more often than we would like, there are people who rank higher than we do in these areas. And when this happens, we begin to covet what they have. We begin to overlook the blessings God has given to us. We begin to get irritated with God because he isn’t giving us all that we think he should.
Instead of this, Jesus offers a different way as he says: “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. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus says that we are to choose the lowest place – the place of least honor. Yet this action actually produces the opposite result. Choosing the least honored position leads to being honored. As Jesus says at the end of our text, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Now this probably sounds counter intuitive – foolish even. Yet remember that this is a parable. There is far more here than meets the eye because of the One who is speaking these words. Jesus Christ is the One who humbled himself for you. He was numbered with the transgressors for you in spite of the fact that he had no sin. He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, in order to redeem you – in order to free you from sin.
Jesus humbled himself all the way into a sealed tomb. And then, God exalted him. On the third day he raised Christ from the dead in the resurrection that will one day be yours. He freed you from death because death cannot hold onto you. Instead the New Testament calls it “sleep.” For those in Christ, it is no more threatening that an afternoon nap. God exalted Jesus Christ to his right hand. He is the risen and ascended Lord who will return on the Last Day and raise your body from the dead. Death has already lost. That victory is yours in Christ.
Yet for those who are in Christ through baptism, Jesus’ words do not only describe what the Lord had done for us. After all, Jesus speaks them to those present at the meal. He describes a pattern of life that results from his own humble service for us.
In the parable of Pharisee and the tax collector we heard about the tax collector who standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus concluded that parable by saying, “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.”
Because Jesus humbled himself for us and is now exalted, the humility of repentance and confession of sin leads to the exaltation of forgiveness and justification. We confess our sin in the confidence that because of Jesus it leads to the status of being a saint in God’s eyes. It leads to the exaltation of being a justified Christian who is ready now for the judgment of the Last Day.
And Jesus’ words this morning also describe a way of life that is produced by our Lord’s humility and exaltation. It is a way of life that follows in the footsteps of our Lord. This means that we humble ourselves in the service of others. We willingly choose the lower place for the sake of others.
For those in elementary, middle school and high school, this means showing kindness and acceptance towards those who are not popular – towards those who have no status in the social hierarchy of school. For adults it means showing kindness and assistance towards those who can’t do anything for us.
This sounds wasteful. It sounds foolish. But it is the way of the Christian life that follows Jesus. Our Lord has already walked this way for us in order to reconcile us to God and give us the status of being saints. He did this to free us from the clutch of death. And he has already shown us were it leads as we follow our Lord. As he says, today, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”