The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 12, 2021
We are ever tempted to seek to advance our self-interest by self-assertion, by forcing our way forward, front and center.
A man, who had risen from modest blue collar roots to become a celebrated CEO of a Fortune 500 company, scowled and tapped his foot as he and his wife waited in a long DMV line. He growled, “Don’t they know who I am?” “Obviously not, dear,” she hissed with a sharp glance. “After all, if they knew, everyone would defer to a plumber’s son who got lucky!”
Jesus, of all people the most deserving of deference and preference, sought neither. Here near the end of His earthly work, Jesus was leading His disciples to Jerusalem where, He kept reminding them, He’d suffer and die. On their way there, people would sometimes invite them over for dinner. This particular evening, a member of the religious party fighting Him most fiercely, a Pharisee, opened up his home to them. This was not the first time Jesus had taken a Pharisee up on an offer of hospitality. Jesus loved even His “enemies” and was happy to break bread with those who contested His every word and caused much trouble. Jesus always hoped to get rid of His enemies by making them His friends.
Because He was a much talked-about figure, people crowded into the Pharisee’s home. Watching, Jesus saw how many of them jockeyed for the best seats in the house, especially those deemed places of honor. How we all strive for recognition and glory before others! Why, even turtles do!
A certain turtle wanted to winter in Puerto Vallarta, but knew he couldn’t get there on His own. So he paid two big swallows to grab in their beaks a branch at opposite ends and take off, while he clamped on to its middle with his vise-like jaws. The flight to Mexico went fine until a man on the ground looked up, noticed the clever arrangement, marveled at its ingenuity, and exclaimed, “What genius came up with that idea?” Unable to resist taking credit and relishing the admiration, the turtle opened its mouth to shout, “I did…Uh, ohhhhh!”
The aggressive competition for recognition at this party prompted Jesus to tell a parable to illustrate how differently His followers act. They don’t seek a place of honor, but give way to others and “sit down at the lowest place.” They let go of the pursuit of recognition, respect the authority of the party’s host to determine the seating, and leave it to his discretion to decide their place. They don’t assert themselves; they defer to the one in charge.
Surely, in telling this parable, Jesus was not suggesting a sneaky strategy for self-glorification in which we, if we have to, fake humility in order to top our peers in procuring prominence. Jesus always encouraged followers to rely on the ultimate Host to look after their place in the feast of life, while they themselves look after the concerns of their neighbors.
The point of this parable is that His disciples, busy serving others, make little of their social status. They act like guests who leave their reputation and recognition up to the One who in the end sets everything straight.
The Lord sets everything straight at His everlasting party in heaven. For the longevity of eternity, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Those who aim first for self-glorification end up with only the admiration of their small self-centered selves, and those who insist on getting what they’ve earned end up with no more than what they’ve earned. Meanwhile, those who relinquish any presumption of a right to make claims upon the Lord of the house end up with what that loving Host, in the abundance of His grace, chooses to give them, and those whose only hope is to get better than they merit end up with blessings unlimited by their merit.
So Jesus wants His followers to act like the humble guests He describes in the parable’s first half. Jesus also wants them to act like the gracious hosts He described in the parable’s second half. His followers invite and welcome everyone to the party He’s opened up to all. Unlike some hosts who give the favor of hospitality with the expectation of getting some kind of favor back and thus invite only family members, friends and folks who can give them a good return on their putting themselves out, these Christ-like hosts reach out to bring in the “poor” and the “crippled”, those who in that day were in no position to repay anyone for such kindness. These hosts wait for their reward at the “resurrection of the righteous”.
Week after week, the Holy Spirit throws parties at church. Like humble guests, we should be deliriously grateful we got invited and included; and like gracious hosts, we should be wildly and warmly welcoming of all, regardless of how much they can do for us! After all, freely we have received; freely then we should give!