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For this week’s bulletin, click here: sept 30, 2012

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away.

5 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?” 6 And they had nothing to say.

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 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. 10 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 honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

— St. Luke 14.1-11

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? Maybe you’re at home alone, and you get that feeling, and suddenly you turn around, but there’s still no one there. Or maybe it happens to you in a group setting. People are openly staring at you, and you wonder: Is there something in my teeth? Is there something wrong with an article of my clothing? It’s only later that you find out they weren’t really looking at you after all. Today in our Gospel Jesus has that same experience – only they really were watching Him. The Pharisees He sat down to dinner with were watching Him like hawks, trying to trap Him. They wanted to see what He’d do, so they could catch Him out and kill Him. But Jesus used that tense situation to heal a man, in the process giving us some valuable teaching. One wonders if the Pharisees sitting there took it to heart. They probably didn’t. At any rate, let us not be like them. Let’s listen attentively as Jesus describes The Wedding Feast for the Humble.

Also at this dinner is a man with dropsy. Dropsy is not a sickness where you’re clumsy and drop things (if that’s the case, then I was born with it); dropsy is an older name for when fluids accumulate in the tissues of the body. We call it edema nowadays. There was something visibly wrong with this man’s condition.

Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Of course the Pharisees knew the answer. God was not as strict on keeping the Sabbath as they were. Naturally, healing is permitted on the Sabbath. But they remain silent because they don’t want to agree with Jesus. They know He’s right, but they don’t want to admit it – so they stay stubbornly silent.

So to uncover their sinful hearts, Jesus does two things. First He grabs hold of the man and heals him, right there on the spot, and sends him away. Then He asks 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?” This is an even sharper question. Of course the Pharisees would do that for their ox. That’s a situation that requires immediate action – yet here they won’t even lift a finger to help someone who’s suffering right in front of them. But there’s nothing they can say, because Jesus convicted them where they sat.

This is a problem to Jesus. He knows what’s behind their refusal to help. It’s the same thing that’s behind their jockeying for the prime seats at the very dinner they sat at. So to right their wrong attitude, Jesus tells a parable.

Because this is a parable, right away we know that not everything He says has a literal meaning. This is a picture designed to teach us, so we are right in looking to discover the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words. This parable aims at the problem of wanting to be first, sinful pride in action. The only interpretation He gives is at the end: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” which is pretty clear from what He says. But let’s see if we can use others parts of Scripture to cast more light on Jesus’ teaching and fill it in here.

First, Jesus speaks to those who were called to this dinner, that is, to those who are invited. Thus He speaks also to us, because we have been called as well. Many times we refer to our pastors as being called, and what that means is God leads a congregation to ask a qualified man to be their pastor. Really all Christians have been called: we’ve all been called to faith. God has called us to faith through water and the Word, and our whole lives are a response to His call to faith. St. Paul describes our common Christian calling beautifully in our Epistle for today: “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” We all have the same grace from God, we all have the same status, we all have the same relationship of faith and trust in Him. Quite simply, we are one. That’s who we are. We are called to be one in Christ’s kingdom.

Jesus begins His parable by saying, “When someone invites you to a wedding,” or we could even say, “When someone calls you to a wedding.” This is the beginning of our faith – when God calls us to trust in Him, and He gives us the power to trust in Him. This happens when we are baptized. That’s when each of us was healed from our sins. Jesus took hold of us personally in the healing waters of baptism. He held the head of our old Adam under water and drowned it, and He pulled us up out of the deep waters clean and fresh and pure in His sight. He washed our sins away by water and the Word, and He still does that today, through His comforting absolution. And then Jesus lets us go. He turns us loose to serve God and our neighbor, as His own cleansed, healed children, to serve one another and the world – to put others first so that God may be glorified in the world, and we may be exalted in due time. That is the calling we have received, as baptized, called, cleansed children of God.

Jesus says we are called by Someone, and while He doesn’t elaborate on this in the parable, we know who has called us. We have been called by God the Father and “chosen according to His foreknowledge, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by His blood” (I Pe 1:2). The Father is the one who calls or invites us to the wedding feast.

It’s called a wedding feast because this is one of Scripture’s pictures for Christ and the Church at the end of time. We are His Bride, whom Christ loves and sacrificed Himself for, and whom He protects and serves still. On the Last Day, our Bridegroom, Jesus, will return and take us away to be with Him forever. We will never be parted ever again – together forever, because He has taken away our sins and we are radiant and spotless and holy in Him. So Jesus is giving us a gentle reminder to look ahead with this parable He tells. Many of the parables Jesus told that used the picture of the wedding banquet teach us to be ready, as for instance the one in Matthew chapter 22, or the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew chapter 25, or the Master returning from the wedding banquet in Luke 12.

At this wedding which Christ is pointing us to, where He and His Church are united, who gets the seat of honor? Christ does. He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and He’s the only one who can sit in that seat. In many households there’s a chair in the living room that everybody knows is Dad’s chair. It’s where he goes when he wants to put his feet up after a hard day’s work, to watch a little TV or read the newspaper. Nobody else can sit there when Dad wants to because it’s his chair. In a similar fashion, Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father – His rightful seat of honor. The right to sit in that seat belongs only to Him, because of who He is and what He’s done. Only Jesus is both God’s Son and true man. Only Jesus died and rose again to take away our sins. The book of Hebrews tells us, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So He became as much superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is superior to theirs” (Heb 1:3-4). Later in Hebrews it says this: “After He had offered for all time once sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time, He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool, because by one sacrifice He has made perfect those who are being made holy” (Heb 10:12-13). That’s you and me. Jesus guarantees our invitation to the wedding. So Jesus deserves the place of honor at God’s right hand, because nobody else is the Son of God and the Savior.

But the problem comes when we think we deserve that special seat of honor all on our own. Pride tempts us to think that we’re good enough just because we’re us, and because we’re so good we do more than other people and we deserve more from God than other people. That’s the root of 9/10ths of the complaining and finger pointing that you see in society and in the family and yes, even in the church. People complain and bellyache endlessly because they think others aren’t doing as much as they are, and thus they aren’t as good. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do – but you, the rest of you better shape up and start pulling your weight! Get it together! Why can’t you be more like me? I do A,B, and C, or I don’t do X, Y, and Z. You’re not as good as me yet because you’re not like me – you don’t do what I do. You’ve got a ways to go, so shape up.” Notice how the idea of ‘doing’ or ‘works’ creeps in, so easily. That’s how self-righteousness, and works-righteousness (they’re really two sides of the same coin), start. Or that same sinful attitude of pride says, “I won’t serve alongside so-and-so. They’ve got too many problems, they’re not good enough Christians for me, they make too many waves – I can’t be around them or work alongside them.”

Brothers and sisters, you know who else had that separatist, elitist, holier-than-thou attitude? The Pharisees to whom Jesus told this parable. They too sat by themselves in their own little groups and watched others struggle and suffer, when they should have been standing up and reaching out their hands to help them. Lack of service equals lack of love.

The reason this matters eternally is what Jesus says will happen next for the proud and arrogant: “Then 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.” Or more literally, what Jesus says is very vivid and descriptive: “Then you will begin to take the least important place.” If everyone in God’s kingdom has the same call and the same grace – if we’re all invited to the same heavenly wedding – then the least important place isn’t at the wedding; it’s outside the wedding – in the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus’ words here remind us of hell. This is how eternal punishment is described many times in the New Testament, although Jesus only refers to it obliquely here. Jesus is the Host in this parable, because He will judge the living and the dead.

We might wonder, isn’t hell too harsh and severe a punishment for pride? I know it’s a sin, but is it really that bad? Yes, if your pride causes you to turn your back on Christ and reject Him and His work for you – and that will show up in the way that you treat your fellow believers. Refusing to love and serve others is trying to push Jesus out of the seat of honor.

So how do we avoid being thrown out of the wedding? Listen to what Jesus says: “But when you are invited” – or we could say “called” – 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 honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” Jesus’ advice is to humble ourselves, to choose the least important place in the wedding, so then we will be exalted in the end.

How do you take the lowest place? First, by confessing your sins. Don’t try to be any better in God’s eyes than you really are. Bring yourself down and accuse yourself before the Father. Admit your sins and your faults and your mistakes, your pride and your hardness of heart. If we judge ourselves we will not fall under His judgment, for when we confess our sins He is faithful and just and will purify us from all unrighteousness.

Then give up on your own works. Don’t put any trust or reliance in what a good person you are. Despair of your own works. Don’t think of them as anything good. Whatever you consider good or worthwhile about yourself, throw it on the fire and turn to Christ alone. Trust in Him only for forgiveness and eternal life. This is taking the lowest place.

Then show that you believe this is true by putting others ahead of yourself. Think about what’s best for others before you think about what benefits you the most. Learn to look at others the way God looks at you – with compassion and tenderness, bearing with one another when you’re sinned against. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace – which will surely involve sacrificing your pride on more than one occasion. None of us particularly likes to put down our pride and put others first. Do it anyway, because Jesus put others entirely ahead of Himself. He became man and willingly served in this world for the good of others, even enduring the shame of the cross.

He is your example. Imitate Him, and put others first as He did, because Jesus promises that when you do, you will be lifted up – you will be exalted. You will be exalted through God’s grace and the forgiveness of your sins, because putting others first is proof positive that you have a living and active faith, and that faith brings forgiveness and God’s favor with it. “[God the Father] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-23). And God the Father has raised us with Christ and seated us in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7). God has already lifted you up! You’re seated with Christ in the heavenly realms! Your sins are forgiven and you are His forever!

The Son of God Himself calls you “Friend,” for everything He heard from His Father He has made known to you. You know how He has had mercy on you and He has raised you from the ash heap to sit with the princes of His people, all the saints and angels in heaven. You can look forward to the day when all the world will be gathered to the Judgment, and before everybody Jesus will say to you, “Come into the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world, you who are blessed by My Father – for I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was sick or in prison and you visited Me” – and you’ll say, “When did I do that, Lord?” And He will answer, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for Me.” Then you will be honored before all your fellow guests at the wedding.

To help you look forward, stay strong, and be humble until that day, Jesus gives you a little foretaste of the heavenly feast here today – His holy Supper. Here the Lord Himself is Host and guest — as well as the blessed Food we eat and drink! Here today He humbles Himself to feed and care for you, as you come to His altar and receive His body and blood. Your sins are forgiven and you are honored to have Christ with you, just as it will be on the Last Day and forever in heaven – and it’s here for all who are humble, weary, and heavy laden. May we all live in humility so that Christ is exalted in us, who with the Father and the Spirit lives and reigns forever, Amen.