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Humble Enough

October 04, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our mediation on this 17th Sunday after Trinity comes from our gospel text, especially where Luke records, “Now he 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 … For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

In the little town of Mosinee, Wisconsin, there was a coffeehouse called Beatitudes. Their fantastic drinks aside, this little mom-and-pop shop appealed to the 18- and 19-year-old me because it was touted as a Christian coffee shop. The staff was all very friendly. The mugs had Scripture verses written on them, if memory serves me correctly. The walls, likewise, had Scripture verses scrawled trendily on them and there were other pieces of Christian décor and knickknacks scattered around the shop. I remember one night in particular, as I ordered my usual drink, noticing one piece of décor in particular. It was just a plaque, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a desk, and I studied it, mulling over the message written as they prepared my order. The message was this: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

I guess I didn’t have a good grasp of what humility is at the time because I found that plaque profound enough that I still remember it over a decade later. I had thought humility was something of a mental self-flagellation that one ought to do when one starts to think too highly of oneself. I’d never really thought of humility in these terms before, and I found the sentiment to be quite profound. I still do.

I find that our gospel text reflects this. Jesus is invited to the house of one of the Pharisees to celebrate the Sabbath meal. We’re told that “they were watching him carefully,” presumably to see if he would slip up and give them cause to arrest him or worse. Now, in front of Jesus was a man with “dropsy” – what we now know as edema. Whether he was placed there intentionally as a trap or not, Jesus doesn’t even wait for the lawyers and Pharisees to ask the question he knew was on their hearts. He poses the question to them, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” They remain silent, but Jesus answers for them by healing the man and sending him on his way. The follow-up rhetorical question He poses to the dinner party makes the point more clear: “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?”

It’s only after this interaction, noticing how people arranged themselves in places of honor for the meal, that Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast. In it, he warns against choosing for yourself the highest place of honor – that is, thinking more highly of yourself than you ought – because you may not be the most honored person at the banquet. How embarrassing would it be for you to take the seat of highest honor … only to have the master of the feast tell you to move to the other side of the room, because someone more important than you was present! It would be better for you to choose the lowest place. Who knows? Perhaps the master of the feast will invite you to a more honorable position! How wonderful would that be?

It’s funny. If you’re like me, you may hear Jesus saying, “Be like the latter man! Better to think lowlier of yourself and have the master lift you up than have him put you in your place!” I think, however, the message here is more subtle. When you stop and think about it, neither man is actually humble. Both men are attempting to secure for themselves the seat of honor, next to the master; the first is bolder and ruder, trampling whoever gets in his way. The latter man, however, seeks the higher seat of honor by hypocritically dropping into the very lowest spot. The motives of both men are self-serving, but where the prior man is more honest about his intentions, the latter is more duplicitous.

True humility doesn’t regard the self at all. True humility seeks always to serve those around them, even to the detriment of self. It seems to me that this is the lesson Jesus was attempting to teach the Pharisees and lawyers at the dinner party – “You arrange yourselves according to your false impressions and understandings of humility and honor, when none of you, for fear of appearing to break a commandment, would heal someone with dropsy or save someone caught in a well. You think you’re humble enough; but the reality is you’re not humble at all.”

No doubt, that harsh reality was the reason behind their silence … and perhaps it should give us pause as well. Be honest with yourself. Do you aspire to be the second man, humbling himself … in order to get the place of honor? Is your attempt to be humble nothing more than a façade to give the impression of humility while thinking you deserve better? Is humility … a means to an end for you? I know it is for me.

The reality is that our best works are tainted with sin, and our attempts to be humble, to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought, are no different. We selfish sinners always have ulterior motives, though we may not even be cognizant of them. We want the appearance of humility … to serve a purpose, to be of benefit to us and our own glory. It’s the Old Adam within us, the incurvatus, inwardly-focus, navel-gazing narcissists that we are, concerned only with numero uno. Jesus … is the antithesis of such arrogance.

Unlike us, Jesus genuinely gives no thought to self and cares only for those around him. Though the Creator of the cosmos, he humbled himself in the Incarnation, taking on our frail, broken flesh, veiling his glory and majesty, abandoning the glories and splendors of paradise for our pain and toil and suffering. When he could have used his miracles and healings for his own benefit and glory, he charged those who bore witness to stay silent. When he could have abandoned the mission given to him, he instead stayed the course, declaring to the disciples as he was being arrested, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” He could have easily overthrown the Romans, become the nouveau King David and conquered the world … but chose to subject himself to Pontius Pilate, and his acquiescence to the people’s demands for crucifixion. At the cross, as he breathed his last and yielded up his spirit, he humbly submitted to the unbearable punishment that we deserve but could never endure.

Paul puts it best in his letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” He’s the only One worthy of being proud … and yet, on account of his love for us, he humbles himself. Make no mistake: we sinners will never be humble enough, but he is humble enough for us all.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 14:1-11