The Danger of Self-Promotion
December 13, 2015
Read Lu 14:7-11 – A faithful parishioner asked his pastor, “Doesn’t it make you nervous preaching on sin with all those experts sitting out there in the congregation?” The answer should be, “No, because I know the worst sinner is standing in the pulpit.” If you knew what I know about me, and I what you know about you, we’d know! It’s critical we see ourselves as God sees us. That drives a humility that is key to heaven and holy living.
James 4:6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” It is important to be humble – not the “Aw shucks, it was nothing” kind – but a humility that sees God for who He really is and me for who I really am. Isaiah was a brilliant, court-educated, spiritually responsive man. But when he saw God “high and lifted up”, his response was amazing: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). That’s humility. And God doesn’t say, “You’re not so bad, Isaiah. In fact, you’re the best one around.” Rather God accepted that confession and sent an angel with a burning coal to touch his lips saying “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isa 6:6). We know ourselves when we see ourselves as God does.
That’s what Jesus is trying to show the Pharisees here. Remember the setting. Jesus goes to Sabbath lunch by a leading Pharisee. But it’s a setup. A sick man has been invited in hopes Jesus will heal him so they can accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath. Jesus thwarts that effort by showing their hypocrisy. They give themselves waivers to help their own animals on the Sabbath, but object to healing a terribly afflicted man. They are left with no response.
But Jesus isn’t done. V. 7, “ Now he told a parable to those who were invited.” If they have no further response, He does. So he tells a parable. Now many teach that Jesus is instructing against being too forward, a sort of commentary on Prov 27:2, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.” But while that is true, that is not the main point of Jesus’ teaching.
This is a “parable” -- a physical illustration of a deeper spiritual truth. V 11 is key: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus hammers that principle home relentlessly in Luke’s gospel. It warns against the natural self-justification that plagues all of us. The Pharisees, who considered themselves better than others, desperately needed to understand this, just as we do. We are all Pharisees at heart. Born that way. And Jesus is teaching for entrance to God’s kingdom, something has to change. So – the simple parable and the spiritual point.
I. The Simple Parable
V. 7 tells us what drove this parable. Jesus had seen something when He first arrived. “7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor.” Jesus’ audience for is “those who were invited” to the party – His comments sparked by the scramble for seating He’d seen earlier. In that He saw human nature in need of transformation!
A. Human Tendency
In those days at a formal occasion, people didn’t sit at table as we do. They reclined on couches around a table. Normally each table would have four such couches, one on each side. One’s rank was reflected by where he was seated. Top honor was accorded the host who reclined in the middle seat of the host couch. The most honored guest reclined to his right and the next to his left – all at the “head” couch, so to speak. The couch to the left included positions 4-6, to the right, 7-9; and the couch at the foot included positions 10-12. Other tables in decreasing order of honor were included depending on the size of the gathering. Seating order determined one’s position in the pecking order.
Now, human nature takes over. V. 7, “They chose the places of honor.” They had no place cards, you see. The host had a seating order in his head, but without place cards, early arrivers sat as high as they dared, assuming possession is 9/10’s of the law and hoped they’d get to stay. A guy might know he could never be #2 in this crowd, but nothing stopped him from trying for number 4. So he subtly slid in just ahead of someone else heading for that spot. Everyone was seeking to be near the host, or to be near someone else who could benefit them in some way. It was the first century version of ladder climbing as everyone hoped, over time, to gain better and better positions. Humility in this setting would have been considered a sign of weakness. This was the kind of infighting Jesus had observed that suggested His parable.
So Jesus addresses this natural inclination to self-promotion. Vv. 8-9: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast (Jesus uses “wedding feast” for His example instead of dinner party – introducing the subject with sensitivity and a hope that they will hear), do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.” We all exaggerate our own importance. Adlai Stevenson ran for president against Ike in 1952. He was considered an intellectual. To check it out, on a taxi ride to an airport, he said to the cabbie, “People say I talk over the head of the average man. What do you think?” The cabbie replied, “Well, Governor, I understand you all right, -- but I’m not sure about the average man.” No one wants to be average, right? We naturally exaggerate our importance, seeking honor!
And we get very clever about it. Remember Senator Sam Irvin who chaired the Watergate committee. He looked every bit the good-ole-boy country lawyer. But Howard Baker, the ranking Republican member later wrote, “When Sam reaches the point where he refers to himself as ‘just a poor old country lawyer from North Carolina,’ I am motivated to do two things. First, out of reflex action, I put my hand on my wallet; then, I gently remind him that while he may consider himself to be just a poor old country lawyer, he is also an honor graduate of Harvard Law School. That’s when Chairman Sam raises his magnificent eyebrows, cocks his head, beams his benign smile and whispers, “Yes, Howard, but nobody can tell it.” There’s pride in disguise. Another way of seeking honored places at the table. But Jesus knew the more we self-promote, the more vulnerable we are. He had a better way.
B. Humbling Transformation
10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” Try a little humility. The Greek philosophers and ancient people in general would never have given this advice. Humility is a stricly Christian concept. Jesus is saying, “You should try it; you might be surprised.” Actually, it’s interesting Jesus’ had to give this advice to supposed Law experts. The advice comes straight out the OT they claim to revere: Prov 25:6-7 “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, 7 for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
Note, Jesus does not say, “Go and sit in a lower place.” He says, “sit in the lowest place.” Go to rock bottom. That’s tough, isn’t it? Consider yourself the least of all who surround you. Not many of us can do that. The great sportswriter, Grantland Rice, once lost his press pass to an Army-ND football game. So he went out, found a scalper, bought a ticket and watched the game from the stands, typewriter on his knees. Afterward, he went to the press box to complete his story where a friend asked, “Why didn’t you throw some weight around?” He replied, “Tell you the truth, I don’t weigh much.” That’s Jesus’ point. None of us weigh much. We’d represent Christ so much better if we waited to hear, “Come up here,” than to assume too much. But that goes against every natural tendency. It’s humbling, like God wants us.
But is that what this is all about? Is Jesus just suggesting a gimmick of “reverse psychology” to gain recognition? Of course not. The advice is not simply a strategy to gain position thru cleverness. It is pointing us to a lifestyle of true humility. But there is a much deeper spiritual truth. It’s a parable!
II. The Spiritual Point
To get the impact, remember the audience – a group of unbelieving Pharisees who would soon kill Him. This is not mere advice about how to act at a wedding party. The Bible often used a feast to depict the kingdom of God as in Isa 25:6) “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” So how does this parable represent spiritual truth?
A. Human Tendency
What is the human tendency with regard to the kingdom of God – getting to the banquet? Self-promotion -- the thought that I must be my own press agent, promote my own cause, extoll my own virtues, insist on my own worth and value. That is exactly what the Pharisees were all about as seen in their mad scramble for lunch seats. Jesus saw hearts that were full of themselves and would take the same approach to entrance into God’s kingdom. Their ticket was keeping the law as they defined it. They believed that they, as opposed to the average guy, were earning their way in thru fasting twice a week, paying tithes, keeping Sabbath regulations and offering sacrifices. No one was more qualified than they in their minds. Jesus’ message of repentance was abhorrent to them. It violated every natural inclination to do something to gain God’s approval.
They would not accept the truth of Rom 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But we must see that truth if we are ever to get to a cure. We must see what Joseph Conrad saw when he wrote The Heart of Darkness – that the selfish barbarism of the human heart is the same whether found in the heart of the Congo or the sophisticated streets of London. We must see what William Golding saw when the isolated boys of Lord of the Flies degenerated into murderous savages. That’s our heart, too.
B. Heavenly Transformation
The Pharisees should have known. We can never earn God by human merit. He comes to us, not we to Him. Even the OT taught that had they delved deeply enough. One fascinating example. Right after the Ten Commandments God gave Moses an extraordinary instruction. Exod 20:24-25: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.” What is that all about? This is God saying, “You know you can’t keep those commands and I know you can’t keep them. Offer a sacrifice of repentance and I’ll forgive. But even the altar must be without any human embellishment of any kind! No fancy scrollwork, no brilliant design; don’t even square the rocks. You modify it in any way and your profane it. Salvation is my work. No human effort accepted.”
Forty years later when Joshua took over from Moses, guess what? Josh 8:30-31: “At that time Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.”
Do you see the point, Beloved? The Pharisees did not, do you? It was there all the time. No works allowed. You must take the lowest seat at the table. You must check your pride and all your accomplishments at the door. Only the HS can prompt that kind of humility in a person’s life – one where they want God so much that they are willing to give up all they have.
Like Paul in Phil 3, after listing all his earthly accomplishment and good works he says: 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” To gain Christ, I must give up me. It takes a lot of humility to confess my sin and give up my accomplishments – to take the back seat at the table. But that’s what is required to get in.
There is a further secondary application, obviously. Once I have come to Christ by faith, tossing aside all my efforts, now Jesus is asking me to live a life consistent with that – a humble existence that recognizes anything I am or have of value is because of Him. Having become a child of God by this principle: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” now I am to live like it. I derive meaning by being His and seeking His will, not my own. It’s a great life.
Conc – Human pride is an ugly characteristic. It must move out before Christ can move in. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells of a time he was invited to speak at Oxford University. Lloyd-Jones says he went and preached the simple gospel message as he would have anywhere else. Well, a Q&A followed and a bright young law student and head of the debating team stood up. He complimented Jones and his delivery and style, said he enjoyed the presentation, but then in a superior and sarcastic tone suggested that the content was certainly deficient, being such as might have been easily understood by an audience of farm laborers or anyone else. And then he sat down to a chorus of jeering laughter.
The chairman then turned to Lloyd-Jones for a response. Jones – a university trained medical doctor as well as theologian, stood and replied, “As to your objection to my content, I confess that while I might be a heretic, I had, until being enlightened by the gentleman, considered the undergraduates and indeed the graduates of Oxford University as being just ordinary common human clay and miserable sinners like everybody else and thus with needs precisely the same as those of myself, the agricultural laborer or anyone else. I preached as I did deliberately, hoping the Oxford crowed would be able to understand what the agricultural crowd did.” He said that provoked another round of laughter and cheering by the students, this time in his favor and resulting in an attentive hearing thereafter.
We’re all in the same boat, Beloved – Pharisees and 21st century churchgoers, and Oxford students alike. All experts at sin – all in need of a God who comes to us and can only be accepted, never earned. The Jesus who gave the parable, soon paid the price for the sin of those present that day and this. But have we swallowed our pride and accepted Him? That’s the question. Once we take that back seat at the table, the promotions are up to Him. Let’s pray.