Eating Humble Pie
Our gospel lesson for today, while all taking place at the same meal, really informs us and instructs us on three very different points. These 14 verses could easily be done as a 3 part series or perhaps as one really long sermon with 3 separate main points. As tempting as delivering a 30-40 minute sermon is, I will abstain from such a thing for now. Rather, I will focus our attention on the middle section, the parable as it were.
“[Jesus] told a parable to those who were invited when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, ‘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. 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.”
As simple as the words and concepts are in this section, this particular passage seemed a bit difficult growing up to understand any personal application. This is in part because it is identified as a parable, and yet the subject of this parable are those in attendance. This is very different from most of the parables where the protagonist is some other person doing some other action. However, there is a bit a distinction in Jesus’s story, in that he places the hearers not in a general banquet like they are at in that moment, but instead at a wedding banquet. This fact, however, perhaps added to my disconnect with this story, because in our present time, it is typical for the bride and groom to either select where everyone is sitting, making this hypothetical completely impossible, or the couple reserves seating for family and the most important guests, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves in a way where it doesn’t matter where we sit as long as we don’t sit in the reserved section, which of course we wouldn’t do. So the scenario just doesn’t seem likely that you are at a wedding reception and you sit down far from the head table and the bride, or groom, or the parent who paid for the whole thing comes up to you and says, what are you sitting so far back for, come closer to this place of honor. But Luke shares with us another parable that I think will help us better understand the point that Jesus is making.
This occurs in Luke 18: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” And once again, Jesus says: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In other words, the significance of being humble applies to more scenarios that just at a banquet. Even the lesson from proverbs makes it more general when it says “do not put yourself forward in a king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘come up here,’ that to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” So it would seem that a guiding principle for one who is a part of the kingdom of God, one who bears the name of Christ, is to not put yourself higher than you ought to, but instead to be humble. So it is not right for a Christian to brag about his or her accomplishments, or point out the failures of others, or really do anything that promotes your self-pride, but instead you should be humble. This might sound easy, like “alright, don’t build myself up too much to other people, and don’t put down or make fun of other people, check and check.” But our pride slips into our psyche in subtle ways.
Just this week, I was reading a post on Facebook from a professor of mine that I greatly respect, and I choose to then look at the comments. The professor was reflecting upon the most recent National Youth gathering, and he was commenting on the importance of such gatherings for the sake of helping teach youth as well as being a collaboration between professional church workers and adults who do not work full time in church ministry. He was commending the recent gathering, highlighting the many ways that it had successfully hit both of the aforementioned desired outcomes. Admittedly, and yet unbeknownst to me, I was filled with pride upon reading my former professor’s post. Pride for my professor in having such well thought out and articulated reflections, and honestly pride for myself that after reading his words. I felt that he articulated things that I felt. But then my pride got bruised by the comments. It wasn’t a terrible comment, arguing with or bashing anything that the professor said. It simply said that the author should check out an alternate youth conference. With six simple words, I read into the comment a complete lack of critical thinking about what the author had just said. I read into the comment a suggestion that everything the author commended about the National Youth Gathering would pale in comparison to if he were to check out this other conference. I read into the comment a fixation with preconceived biases, and I felt indignant. Who is this person to question the views of my learned professor? This person probably didn’t even read his article but just put forth her biases. This is a layperson of the LC-MS, whatever will be the state of the Lutheran Church in the future if it is common for people to act so ignorantly…I could sadly go on and on with my many thoughts that bubbled and festered into my mind because of an online exchange. But despite so many thoughts, the one that never occurred to me was “this is your pride talking.” I did not, sadly until much later, realize that it was my pride fueling my frustrations. If this person would not even respect hearing these viewpoints from a professor at a seminary with a Ph. D., why would any person with the same perspective as that person listen to a greenhorn pastor like myself? What hope do I have of making any effectual change on things that I think are wrong in this world? And so it was, that I, who attempted to exalt myself, was humbled, and the worst part is that instead of eating my humble pie with the proper reflection, namely: that I cannot do it, therefore I am left to put my trust in God, I instead lashed out in anger and frustration. And this is all too common the way of it, is it not? Rather than putting things in the proper perspective: that we cannot effect a positive change in anyone’s heart by our own will or desire, we instead buy into our pride and into the lie that we can do exactly what we want to do and hope to do.
Imagine for a moment that you started a business selling clothes. A challenging venture for sure, but you find you are pretty good at it. The clothes you sell are of the highest quality and are marked at a reasonable cost. The people who end up with those clothes go away happy and are most often repeat customers. Things are going well and you hire an apprentice, someone to help out so that others might know about the fine clothes. But this apprentice doesn’t seem to understand the art of telling others about the clothes. This apprentice tells one customer only about the things he has done while wearing those clothes. Another customer came into the shop with such low quality clothes on, that the apprentice immediately kicked her out. Another time, some people walked right past the shop and the apprentice stepped out and yelled at them for not recognizing the great quality of items that the shop offered. Another time, someone came into the shop to look around, and the apprentice was too intimidated to talk with that person, so the shopper left with nothing. Now if you have this for an apprentice, how much longer will you put up with him and his antics?
Our Lord offers to people a robe of righteousness at a reasonable cost, that is, already paid for with his life. You have been given a robe, and are invited by God to walk along side Him as He offers this gift to others. But sometimes in our pride, we focus our witness on ourselves and not on God. Sometimes in our pride, we reject witnessing to others because of what they come to us with. Sometimes in our pride, we are quick to point out what is wrong with others. Sometimes in our pride, we don’t even attempt to witness to others because we don’t want to face rejection, ridicule, or pain. So many ways that our pride keeps us from the calling that God has placed upon us. We put our trust in ourselves and not in God. And what does God do in response? Does he fire us like we deserve? Does he reduce our compensation in any way? No, instead we are ever invited to continue to walk with Him and learn from Him. We are forgiven of our sins and invited to try again, this time as one who humbly testifies to what God has done for you. You instead live renewed, telling others about God with a trust that no matter what, it is not upon your shoulders if that person accepts or rejects the testimony. Pride has no place in God’s kingdom, not between Christians, not from a Christian to a non-believer, and not even within a Christian inside himself or herself. Instead, your focus should not be upon yourself in anyway, but instead upon God who can solely lift you up.