Places of Honor – March 19, 2017, the Third Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 58:1-8, Luke 14:1-14
March 19, 2017
Since we had our banquet last evening, maybe this passage from Luke is more appropriate for today than I first imagined. I wonder if anybody thought about this when they were making their table selection for last night’s event? Who had the places of Honor? (Where were the places of honor?)
Fortunately, as far as our actual tables were concerned, we had round tables – like King Arthur! Legend has it that Arthur didn’t want his knights fighting for the places of honor at a long straight table – like the people in this story. So he came up with the idea of a round table, where everyone would be equal. That’s the legend, anyway. However, it occurs to me that somebody still got to sit next to the King! But I digress …
Here in this story, we have another one of the controversies surrounding Jesus – another one of the things that took him that much further down “The Road to the Cross.”
Jesus was invited to the home of one of the Pharisees for dinner. And I first want you to notice that that did happen. The Pharisees did reach out to Jesus. There are several places in the Gospels where he was invited to dinner by a Pharisee, or a group of Pharisees.
I think if Jesus were to come today, that would happen. There would be people in the religious leadership who would want him to “hang out” with them. And I also wonder if they too would feel uncomfortable with the people Jesus did hang out with – the poor, the outcast, and the sinners! That’s what the Pharisees felt about it then. They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your master associate with, and even eat with sinners!” That was another step down that “Road to the Cross!”
So the controversy here was that, during the meal, a man came to Jesus with “dropsy.” Does anyone know what that was? It was a buildup of fluid in the legs, probably from what we’ve come to call “Congestive Heart Failure.” They had that then, too. But they had very little they could do about it!
So the question was whether or not Jesus would do anything about it. Because it was the Sabbath day. And even though it is incredulous to us, the Pharisees criticized him for healing people on the Sabbath because it was a “violation” of the Sabbath Law!
Well, Jesus’ answer to them was to tell a parable. He was good at that! And the parable was this one about people choosing seats at a banquet. “Who should have the ‘Places of Honor?’” he asked. In other words, to whom do we give the greatest value in our world?
Our society has its own ideas about that. And so did his. But he himself said something different. He said, “When you are invited to a banquet, don’t choose the place of honor. Choose a ‘lower place.’ Then perhaps the host will call you up higher!” “Because, wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you chose the place of honor, and then, in front of everybody, the host asked you to move down!” He likened that to the kingdom of God. He said. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
As kids we had our own version of this. I think I might have mentioned this before, but for us as kids, it was the swings on the playground. We had the most awesome swings at North Hills Elementary School! They were hugely tall! And there were at least a dozen swings! And the “cool kids” got the best swings, the swings closest to the rest of the playground. The “un-cool kids” had to go farther down to the other swings. I was always way down the other end. And if you were in one of the “cool swings” and a “cool kid” came along, you had to move down! And everyone understood that! This was the “social order!” (But! I lived only a couple of blocks from the school. So after school, I would often go down and swing on the “cool swings!” It was great!)
It’s often the same in the “grown-up” world. Things like who is great and who should be honored, and who has value are very real! And Jesus tells us that it’s very different in the kingdom of God. He said things like, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” “Whoever would be great among you must be your(?) servant!”
Sometimes that’s hard for us to understand. We live in a society which honors the celebrities among us. We see them in spotlights, on red carpets, on talk shows, and on the playing field. We think their voice is important in the world because they are celebrities! And as I’ve often said, we live in a society in which the “virtue” of “humility” has all but vanished. The old idea of “upbuilding one another” – or “edifying” each other, as the New Testament puts it – has been replaced by the need people feel to “build up the self.” In light of all that, these words of Jesus almost make no sense! “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And that made a lot of people uncomfortable!
You know, we rattle those words off as part of what I’ve called “the landscape of our faith.” In other words, it’s just part of our “faith system.” We just say them, like it’s easy to say them. Because we’ve always said them. But do we really believe them? Do we really live them? Do we really mean them? And do we realize that such words often go against everything our world tells us about who is first, and who is exalted, and who is honored?
Do you think the people of Jesus’ day were uncomfortable hearing those words? Do you think they were uncomfortable seeing who Jesus “hung out with” as I’ve been saying? Are you uncomfortable with that?
I think this is a real good thing to do during the Lenten season. Yes, we use Lent as a time to examine our faith and see where we fall short. You’ve heard me say that. But maybe should also use this time to think about the words we say about our faith and what we believe, and see if we really believe them. For example – and I’ve said this before – every week, every one of you says to God, “Thy will be done…” I know! I’ve heard you! But do you really get the impact of what those words mean? Do you really mean them?
So I encourage you to think the same way about these words today. Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted!” And know that that didn’t sit well with the people who first heard them. This brought him just a little farther down “The Road to the Cross.”
How about us? Do we seek the places of honor? Or do we strive to live the humble life Jesus taught, and Jesus modeled? “Whoever would be great among you must be servant, and whoever would be first among you, must be slave of all.”
Eternal God, who once was humbled on a cross for our sake, help us to know what it means to follow our Lord who loved even “the least of these.” Help us to think beyond this world in a way that shows your love to the world. May your name be glorified in us and in our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.