The path of Christ is having God give you the humility of Christ – not a false humility, not self-abuse, but true joy in seeing all, and yourself, as the image of God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22 C
Texts: Luke 14:1, 7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Jeremiah 2:4-13
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Be careful, very careful, with this Gospel reading.
Once again, Jesus is speaking of life in the reign of God, something we’ve heard all summer. But today’s Gospel is as tricky as any we’ve had. There are side paths that are easy to stumble into, paths which lead away from the path of Christ, if you’re not paying attention.
Jesus doesn’t intentionally set a trap here. In fact, he’s very consistent with the flow we’ve heard from him for months.
The problem is human nature. The particular thing he’s talking about, humility, cuts really close to a nerve in how we live, and makes it hard to hear and follow. Judging by the common way people usually talk about these verses and live them out, most of us have gotten lost on these side paths.
So listen carefully. Keep an eye on Jesus’ lead as closely as you ever have.
Now, our problems with social order and class are a little different from this story.
We don’t have a strict social and class order that’s reflected in how people are seated at the table, but we do have deep problems with social order and class. We’re very familiar with judging and with jockeying for position.
But when Jesus says take the lowest seat, and let others go before you, or, those who humble themselves shall be exalted and those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, we seem to consistently miss the point and take the side paths.
The first is the path of false humility and expectation of reward, one of the main Christian responses to this. Let others go first and pretend you’re humble. But inwardly, we hope someone notices, hope to be invited forward, to be commended. We can even be ridiculously proud of how humble we are. This isn’t a path of humility, it’s a path of pride and deceit. Please hear this clearly: do not leave worship today believing humility means Jesus wants you to pretend to be lower than others, hoping to be commended, resenting when you’re not. Nothing is further from the truth.
The other side path of Christian response is the path of self-devaluing. To hear Jesus saying you have no value, your gifts are of no account, you’re worthless. Everyone is better than you, you deserve no attention. This response has been drilled into the faithful for centuries, particularly by the powerful onto the marginalized and the powerless. This isn’t a path of humility, it’s a path of self-hate, of self-abuse. Please hear this clearly: do not leave worship today believing Jesus says being humble means you have no value, you aren’t worthy of a seat at the table. Nothing is further from the truth.
To find truth, we need to overturn our understanding of the word “deserve.”
So, some believers think they deserve more praise, more attention, are more important, but act as if they’re not because they think it’s how the game is played. The truth is, it may look nice to let someone go ahead of you, but if inwardly you think you deserve more attention, you’ve missed the whole point.
Some believers feel they deserve no praise, they’re worth nothing, deserve being sent to the bottom. This also may look humble, but if inwardly you think you have no value, you’ve also missed the point.
Instead, Jesus is describing an entirely new upside-down world order. Everyone deserves love, everyone deserves praise. From chapter one of Genesis to now God has tried to tell you that all are created in God’s own image. Are worthy of the love of the Triune God who made all things.
Jockeying for position isn’t the problem. Believing there is such a thing as position, that there are people who rank higher, are more important, that’s the problem. Jesus calls for a complete transformation of the heart’s values. Seeing everyone as precious in God’s eyes, including yourself, including the ones who are outside your empathy, those you look down on. Having the mutual love for all Hebrews talks about today, and welcoming strangers not because they might be angels, but because they are the image of God.
Jesus told a parable to show this reversal. But they already had the only parable they needed.
The eternal Word of the Triune God, one with the Father and the Spirit from before creation itself, was at this dinner. The One whom all creation should honor and adore and kneel before watched other people scramble for the important seats.
Jesus is the parable. The One who created billions of galaxies, worthy of all honor and praise, did not, as Paul reminds you in Philippians 2, cling to divinity, but this Son, the Word, humbled himself and took on human flesh, and by this said, “You are beloved, and precious, and worthy.”
That’s Jesus’ vision of God’s reign. It removes any distinction between people. If the God of all time deigns to become a human being, then simply being a human being made in God’s image is glory and honor enough for anyone. For each and every one.
Why have social order and class when we can look at each other in equal joy, recognizing God’s face in each other’s faces?
But going from where we are to living this vision can’t be done in an instant.
That’s where we get lost. There’s no switch to flip that we suddenly know in our hearts we’re all equal, or instantly care for the people whom we don’t care for, or think better of the people we disdain. We can’t suddenly see as Jesus sees, love as Jesus loves, live as Jesus lived. It takes God time to shape us.
So today Jesus names just the first steps toward this reality. Think of what he’s saying this way:
When you were a child and you hurt someone, your parents likely told you to say you were sorry. But if you’re like most children, you might not have truly felt it. There might have been a touch of sullenness and reluctance to your “sorry.”
But one day, the goal is you’d become a person who genuinely felt sorry when you hurt someone, who said, “Can you please forgive me?” Not sullenly, not because you were told to, but because that’s how you viewed the world and all people. Because you loved this person.
Likewise, Jesus says humility’s first steps are: “take the lower seat. Be humble. Don’t put yourself above others.”
But this isn’t the end of the path, the goal of Christian life. These instructions aren’t full life in God’s reign. They’re just the first baby steps of following Christ’s path of humility, a path that leads to the cross.
Sadly, the Church is and has been full of adults of all ages who live frozen at these baby steps. Who never let the Spirit transform their heart and eyes to feel and see as Jesus does. Who are forever children when it comes to this truth of God’s reign. So they – we – toddle off on the side paths of immature humility that only lead to death and pain and sadness. Remaining at the basic level of Christ’s humility for one’s whole life is unhealthy, even deadly, because is shows a dry, empty heart. It’s rejecting God’s fountain of living water, Jeremiah says today, and building yourself a cracked cistern that holds no water.
It’s time to start growing up. To move to solid food, real nourishment, and a deeper understanding of the life in Christ.
Once you leave today’s baby steps and take full, grown strides down Christ’s path, you’ll find the true glory of God’s reign.
It’s a chaotic joy of a table that has enough seats for everyone, and everyone’s getting up and switching seats, sharing food and laughter, telling stories, embracing tears, rejoicing in good news. A reign of God with no hierarchies, no privilege, no rankings, where all look at each other with glad and shining faces, recognizing the image of God in the other because all see it in themselves, too.
That’s what Jesus was hoping to get started at that dinner party, a path that opens up to such chaos and delight and wonder.
To see this in your life, you’re going to want to pray today’s prayer of the day often: Give me, O God, the humility of your Son. Make this joyful reality, this new heart, these new eyes, mine always. Because God delights to give that to you.
And if this is what God models in Christ, and what God wants to make happen in you, and in all God’s children, why on earth or in heaven would you want anything less?
In the name of Jesus. Amen