Seventh Sunday After Trinity July 14, 2002
“And again he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” So far the Holy Word.
In Christ Jesus, who humbled Himself and is exalted, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Robert E. Lee is widely recognized as one of the best military tacticians in the history of the United States. What is less widely known is that Lee was a devout Christian, and a very humble man. Once he was sitting at the back of a passenger car on a train enroute to Richmond. The car was packed with Confederate officers. An elderly woman, poorly dressed, entered the coach at one of the stations. When no seat was offered to her, she gradually made her way down the aisle to the back of the car. Immediately, Lee stood up and gave her his place. One soldier after another then got up to give the general his seat. “No, gentlemen,” he said, “if there is none for this lady, there can be none me!” Lee may have been a master of warfare—but he was also a master of humility.
True humility is a hard lesson to learn. The poet T. S. Eliot once said, “Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.” That’s a desire that must die in us Christians, however. If we want to be fruitful servants of our Lord, we must kill it, as hard as that might be to do. Jesus Christ is the Master of heaven and earth, but for our sakes He was also a Master of humility. If we want learn the lesson of true humility we must look to Him for guidance, and our text for today is a good place to start. Our theme is—
LEARNING HUMILITY FROM THE MASTER
In order to understand the words of Jesus in this text, we have to put ourselves into the room where Jesus was sitting when he said them. He had been invited to a dinner one evening that was being given by one of the Pharisees. Now, when we’re invited to someone’s house for dinner, it usually doesn’t really matter much where we sit down. The head of the house sometimes sits on the end, and the hostess usually wants to sit where she can be nearest the kitchen, but besides that people generally sit where they like. Not so in ancient Israel. At a dinner party in Jesus’ time, you could tell who were most important guests by how close they sat to the host. The highest members of society sat near the head of the table. Not-so-important people sat farther down. Those who sat at the foot of the table were the humblest people; they were supposed to feel lucky they were invited at all.
On this particular evening Jesus looked around Him as the guests were arriving for dinner. He noticed that as soon as they got there, they’d scurry to get a place near the head of the table—a place of “honor.” So he told the people there a parable. The AAT translation renders this passage well. Jesus said, “When anyone invites you to a feast, don’t take the place of honor. He may have invited somebody more important than you. And he who invited you and him will come and tell you, ‘Give this man your place,’ and then you’ll feel ashamed when you have to take the lowest place. No, when you’re invited, go and take the lowest place, so that when your host comes he’ll tell you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then all your fellow guests will see how you’re honored. If you honor yourself, you’ll be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you’ll be honored.”
Now you might think, “That sounds like good, practical advice.” After all, modesty is a good thing, and nobody likes to be shamed in public. But what’s this passage all about? Is it just a tip on good table manners? No, it’s much more than that. Luke tells us that the words of Jesus are a parable. And you know what a parable is - it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. So what’s the heavenly meaning that the Master is trying to get across to us here? It’s a lesson about true humility. It’s the hard lesson that we should be humble, not proud, before God and our fellow men!
Now actions speak louder than words, and nobody likes a person who says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But Jesus wasn’t that kind of teacher. Jesus Himself was the Master of humility. His whole life was a lesson in humility. No one knew better than our Savior what it meant to “humble himself.” If you think it’s hard to be humble, imagine how the Son of God felt! Paul said, “Christ Jesus…being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.”—Php 2:5. Throughout the ages it’s been said of extremely proud men, like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, “He considered himself a god.” But Jesus really was God! It wasn’t “robbery”—He wasn’t taking anything that didn’t belong to Him—when He said that He was equal with God, part of God, the almighty Creator of the universe! If anyone deserved to be proud, “to take the highest seat” in life, certainly it was Jesus. But when our Savior came to earth to begin His work He took not the highest seat, but the lowest! Paul goes on, “But He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”—Php 2:6-9.
Was being humble easy for our Savior? I think it may have the very hardest part of the sufferings He endured! Imagine—for Almighty God to stand there and take it while petty human beings laughed at Him, insulted Him, schemed against Him, and finally plotted His murder! And yet He did stand for it. He humbly endured every shameful humiliation the unbelievers could heap upon Him. Finally, he went through the ultimate humiliation—death by crucifixion. Not every condemned criminal in those days was crucified, you know—that form of execution was reserved for the lowest criminals; filthy traitors and mass-murderers. He humbled Himself even to this terrible end. And for what? For the simple joy of delivering you and me, His natural enemies, from our sins! Paul says, “Look…unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.”—Heb 12:2. He humbly carried out his love for us to the final drop of blood, the last rending agony, so that He might carry us—you and me!—from the pit of hell to the very gates of heaven.
Yes, Jesus was humble for our sake—let us be humble for His sake. Today our Savior is urging us to choose for ourselves the lowest seat, to live lives of humility before God and our fellow men.
You’d think the first part, anyway, would be easy. To feel humble toward God, all we have to do is be realistic! After all, if you read the Bible you just can’t miss what it says about our natural relation to God. In the Psalms, for instance, we read, “God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back; they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”—Ps 53:2-3. But even we Christians tend to seek out a high place for ourselves in God’s sight. We tend to be like the proud Pharisee standing in the front of the temple, saying, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are!” But you remember, Jesus praised the other fellow, the despised tax collector who was standing in a dark corner in the back of the temple. This man didn’t even dare to lift up his eyes to heaven, but struck himself on the chest in repentance and said, “‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you,” Jesus said, “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself will be abased, and he that humbleth himself will be exalted.” Lk 18:13-14.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “To know one’s self is, above all, to know what one lacks. The first product of self knowledge is humility.” It wasn’t hard for that tax collector to be humble, because he knew what he lacked—righteousness. He knew his sin, and he knew God knew it. The only option he had was to beg for God’s mercy, so he did. May God give us the same self-knowledge and the same repentant humility that this man had. Face your sins and confess them! You can be sure that the Lord will not be stingy about forgiving those sins—yes, every one, for sake of the precious blood Jesus shed for you. The good news of the Gospel is that, even where sin abounds, grace in Christ Jesus abounds much more!
Maybe the hardest part of the humility that God expects from us is being humble toward each other. Toward God—maybe, but toward the fellow next door? Now that’s hard! “I may not be the best,” we say to ourselves in mock humility, “but compared to that person I’m much more fill in the blank—upstanding, intelligent, honest, attractive, resourceful, etc.” Even among our fellow Christians, we’re always comparing ourselves with others; consciously or unconsciously choosing the highest place for ourselves. In the words of the apostle, “Brethren, these things ought not so to be!” Peter urges all of us, young and old, to submit ourselves to each other: “Likewise ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” I Pet 5:5-6. Jesus submitted Himself to no end of suffering for us; can’t we follow His instruction and submit ourselves to our Christian brothers and sisters in love? With the help of God’s Holy Spirit, we can!
In the twelfth century a custom was instituted in Bavaria which was carried on every year for hundreds of years. A prince of the royal family knelt before the multitudes on Maundy Thursday and washed the feet of the twelve poorest men who could be found. He bathed their feet in a silver bowl and wiped them on a towel of the very finest linen. He spoke kindly to them during the ceremony and gave to each of them a gift of money. Of course the prince was only following the example that Jesus set, in humility, on the first Maundy Thursday evening in the upper room. And when the prince was finished, of course, he went back to his royal palace. When Jesus had washed the feet of His disciples, He went humbly on to the cross. Let us keep that picture before our eyes our whole lives long. Let us learn humility from the Master of humility. Jesus was humble for our sake—let us be humble for His! AMEN.
Editor’s Note: This issue represents the last that will be sent you by former editors Paul Naumann and Michael Wilke. We are glad to have had the opportunity to serve you these many years past, but we are gratified to now place this responsibility into the capable hands of Rev. Wayne Eichstadt and his team of contributors. May our Lord continue to bless you through the pages of Ministry by Mail.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.