Humility—Luke Chapter 14:1,7-14
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
30 August 1998
Luke 14:1-14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away. Then he asked them, "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?" And they had nothing to say. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, `Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, `Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honoured in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
This is a wonderful piece of teaching on humility, don't sit at the best seats, don't think so highly of yourself and so you will not be asked to move lower the only way is up. I was thinking about the message, of course most of the time it won't apply, how often are you and I invited to a function at which we could choose seats and may assume too much?
In wedding receptions now the seats are clearly marked with your name and much thought goes into who will be sitting next to who and will they get on etc. So I pondered that the parable is out of date. Then I remembered my own wedding.
Corinne had sent out all the invitations and we had the function room prepared at a hotel in Chipperfield. There was a carved buffet and the idea was that everybody went to tables where cooked meats were carved and they were served. There were no specified seats for anybody you choose who you liked and sat next to them, even the seats on a top table were not designated but we all knew who we were. One of my relatives had assumed he was on top table and come the time to sit he became upset, indeed so angry and upset at what he thought was inappropriate for such a patriarch that he stood up and walked out taking with him his wife and two other relatives who were depending on him for a lift home. So out walked two sets of uncles or whatever. The funny thing was that a friend of mine from college was sitting at a table nearby with some folk he didn't know and we asked him to come and join us and made an extra space. So there was this parable almost in its entirety played out at my wedding reception, I can hardly believe it. So the story which Jesus told had a very practical point in this episode. Fortunately it won't happen often, at £22 a head I hope it doesn't happen to any of you at all.
But there are important lessons which each one of us can learn from the tale. It is not really about table manners, it is about humility. Most of us are not at the top of the table, or at the bottom, we are in the middle in obscurity, we may feel that we should be higher up, better recognised and rewarded. This may be in our business life, may be in political life, may be socially or at work, it may even be at church. We may desire greater recognition and reward, a proper mention and perhaps some pay or extra responsibility to show that we have worked hard or been loyal to the organisation. If this is our desire then we are heading for a fall. There can only be a few on the top table, sometimes there are folk on the top table who do not deserve to be there as much as us, but if we fret about it we will tear ourselves apart with bitterness and envy.
Ambition is a great thing and we should be desperately ambitious, but not for ourselves, rather for God and his ways. We must not take ourselves or career development too seriously, we will only be disappointed because there will be someone higher up than ourselves. And let's face it, 'its not what you know its who you know'. We do our best and work hard because that is what our Christian faith calls us to do. We do not seek recognition or reward, we must be content to leave all that to God. Using the thoughts of Aldous Huxley 'I am afraid of loosing my obscurity, genuineness only thrives in the dark, like celery. There was an advertisement once which showed people doing amazing things and then afterwards it said, only Heineken can do this because it refreshes the parts that other beers can't reach. Well only humility can do this because it releases us from the need for human recognition.
Humilty must also come into our theology. We can think too highly of our theology, our tradition. Our religion can be so perfect, the best. Indeed it can be so perfect that we have no doubts, if we lack humility then we will not allow ourselves to have doubts or questions. Each one of us to stay healthy must wake up once in a while and wonder whether we have got our minds all messed up around some medieval gobbledegook. If we don't then perhaps we are not doing much thinking about our religion. If we are insecure we may lock in on one particular perspective and defend that ferociously, refusing to admit, especially to themselves, that there might be another way of looking at truth.
Honest doubt is a gift of God that helps us sort through the rubbish in our mental attics and throw out the junk that's no good any more. Some of the things I believed as a child served me well then. I don't need them any more. The only way I knew it was time to do some spiritual housecleaning was when doubts began creeping into my mind. So yes, Christians have their doubts. We've got a lot to learn. We know that. If we didn't know that, we'd never make any progress. God keeps feeding us new insights as we struggle through our lives listening and praying. One of the ways God feeds us insights is in the middle of our doubts. Struggling with those doubts, and enjoying the flashes of new insight as God is revealed to us in many different ways, through our study and work - that's one of the things that keeps the Christian life interesting. But all of this can only happen if we have humility and are prepared to change and grow and sometimes admit that we got it wrong.
Only humility can do this because it refreshes the parts of our theology that nothing else can reach. Without humility our theological growth can be dangerous, we become disappointed because we had got it wrong. With humility we realise that we will only ever have a small part of the truth and we must listen carefully to the theology of others as we gently express our own.