Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 29, 2010
Text: Luke 14:1-14
Jesus points out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and pride by playing their own game. He notices how they jockey for the best places at the table, the places of honor at the Sabbath meal, and He gives them some pointers on how to gain the greater honor before men. “You’re going about it all wrong, you Pharisees. Don’t be so obvious in your pursuit of earthly admiration. What you want to do is take the lowest place, a place that is ridiculously low, and then everyone will marvel at your great show of humility. With all pomp and ceremony, the host of the feast will come to you and say, ‘“Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you’” (Luke 14:10; ESV). Of course, Jesus is not really advocating such a false show of humility. This is far from the godly humility commanded in the Scriptures. Really, Jesus is mocking the Pharisees. And they know it. The Pharisees wanted to appear humble, all the while taking the places of honor. Jesus is even better at their game than they are. But the fact that He says it out loud exposes the Pharisees’ sinful pride. In fact, the greatest occasion for pride is a false show of humility. We long for people to say of us, “Look how humble he is,” so that in our great show of humility we are exalted in the eyes of all who behold us.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be humble, or act in ways that befit humility. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6). There is great wisdom in taking the lower position and considering others better than yourself, as we read in the Old Testament this morning, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). But Jesus’ parable is so much more than a lesson in good manners or table etiquette. It is a lesson on how one should approach God, the host of the unending wedding feast of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and His holy Bride, the Church.
You see, our Lord Jesus is here speaking about the pride of self-righteousness before God verses the humility of repentance. The pride of self-righteousness brings our own merits and good works before God and expects that God will reward them. If you’ve ever heard yourself say the words, “I may have my faults, but I’m basically a good person,” you’ve committed this sin. Repent. If you’ve ever taken a certain self-satisfaction in doing a good turn or putting an extra five in the offering plate, you’ve committed this sin. Repent. If you’ve ever compared yourself to your neighbor, the one with the alcohol problem, or the teenaged unwed mother, or the potty mouth who puts salty sailors to shame, and thanked God that you are not like others, especially these sinners, you have committed this sin. Repent. By contrast, the humility of repentance brings us to our knees before God, confessing our sins and our total lack of worthiness, our total lack of righteousness, and pleads the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. In Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, not based on anything within ourselves or anything we have done. It is the free gift of God in Christ Jesus to all who believe, to unworthy sinners who have done nothing to deserve it. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). The one who puts himself forward before God on the basis of anything within himself will be humbled, put in his place, and that place, beloved, is hell. But the one who confesses his sins, confesses that his place is precisely hell, will be exalted by God, invited up higher. The one who cannot possibly repay Jesus invites to His holy feast that has no end.
The Pharisees took great pride in their strict devotion to the Law. They believed God owed them something on the basis of their devotion. They not only kept the Law of God (at least outwardly, in public), but they added many human traditions to God’s Law so that they could be extra sure of their own holiness. The Sabbath was a particularly opportune time for the Pharisees to demonstrate to God and to other people their great obedience and piety. They did no work on the Sabbath. They kept all the human traditions of their ancestors that had been added to God’s Commandment. And they believed that their strictness in keeping the Law, going above and beyond the Commandment, gave them reason to boast before God. They even believed they were better than Jesus! They betrayed their pride when they attempted to trap Jesus by planting at the dinner party a man with dropsy. Would Jesus heal him, and thus break the Sabbath? You see, according to the tradition of the Pharisees, you could not practice medicine on the Sabbath unless someone’s life was in immediate danger. Dropsy, a condition wherein water-filled pockets develop in bodily tissues, resulting in swelling of the limbs, is very painful, but poses no immediate threat to its victim. Furthermore, dropsy was often, though wrongly, thought to be the result of an immoral life. What would Jesus do? Jesus turns the question on them. What about you, dear Pharisees? “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not? … 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?” even though, we might add, a son or an ox may very well survive in the well until the end of the Sabbath? In their pride, the Pharisees are silent. They cannot disagree with Jesus, lest they show their lack of compassion. They cannot agree with Jesus, or their trap will have failed. The Pharisees came before Jesus with their own righteousness, with their great good works, with their strict keeping of the Law. And Jesus put them in their place. Dear Pharisees, you have chosen a place for yourself that is too high. With shame, go and take the lower place. Repent of your pride and self-righteousness and lack of compassion. Pride, which exalts itself before God, will always lead to the Lord’s rejection.
Notice, though, the man with dropsy. He does not say a word. Rather, He is hanging on every Word that comes from the mouth of his Savior. “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?” What will Jesus do? He will pull His son out. He will heal His son of his dropsy and send him away with a blessing. For the man with dropsy will take his true Sabbath rest in Jesus, and so be healed. He who humbles himself will be exalted. He will be exalted by God. He will be exalted by the healing and forgiving Word of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will be exalted because he is in Christ, who is the humble man. Jesus is the One who was willingly humbled, who humbled Himself, even to the point of death on a cross for us men and for our salvation. Almighty God, the Son of God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, took on lowly flesh and became one with sinners, that He might fulfill the Law of God for us and suffer and die as the price of our forgiveness. Thus being obedient and humble to the point of death, God exalted Him by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand to rule all things (Phil. 2:1-11). Jesus is the exalted One who was willingly humbled. Jesus is the humble One who is exalted by God His Father. And beloved in the Lord, in Christ, you who have been humbled, put in your place by the Law of God, who confess your sins and plead nothing before God but the blood and righteousness of Christ alone, have been exalted by God. And you will finally be exalted for all to see in heaven and in the resurrection. For you are baptized into Christ. You are baptized into His humiliation and exaltation. You are baptized into His death and resurrection. Jesus says to you who hang on His every Word, “Be healed, and depart in peace and in the Sabbath rest of my death and resurrection.” The dropsy of your sin really is a matter of eternal life and death. With a Word Jesus takes your dropsy away and into Himself, and gives you His own perfect health.
And incidentally… Or actually not so incidentally, when Jesus tells His host to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, next time he gives a banquet, He is not describing what you need to do at your next backyard barbeque. Jesus is describing what He does in inviting you to His Table here, the foretaste of the feast to come, and to His Table at the unending end-time feast. Jesus invites the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, sinners, you. There is no room for those who boast of their own righteousness. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. There is only room for beggars at His Table. There is only room for sinners who make no claims for themselves. He who humbles himself will be exalted. He who confesses his sin will be forgiven. He who casts himself on the mercy of Christ alone will be seated at the Lord’s own banquet Table. And the Lord Himself will serve him. You cannot repay the Lord for His great mercy. The Pharisees thought they could, but they were rejected. You can only receive. Beloved in the Lord, come, receive. Confess your sins. Be forgiven. And be served by the Lord Himself with His true body and blood. Your Lord says to you this morning, “Friend, move up higher. I myself will serve you. I will give you myself. I will give you eternal life.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.