This week’s scriptures can be found here
So many times I have heard this morning’s scriptures preached as the “don’t get too big for your britches” scriptures, some kind of warning against being prideful, or even being proud. This is seen as some kind of exercise in humility, a habit you need to get into if you want to avoid the sin of pride if you practice it and get into the habit of selecting the low seat, then the reward of being asked to sit higher will be yours and it will all work out the way you wanted it in the first place, maybe even better.
After all, Jesus is telling the parable and warning people not to sit too high or they might experience the humiliation of being asked to sit at a lower place. If they start out at the lower place, He seems to imply, then that gives the host a chance to exalt them and lift them up.
This is all well and good from a theological standpoint. We are to walk humbly with our God as the Old Testament book of Micah tells us and in so doing position ourselves for salvation at the hands of the big old host in the sky so that god can raise us up.
It all fits.
Except that part where it is our humility that earns us our salvation; where we do something and then God is able to save us.
That part rankles a little bit.
But it is something that happens all the time. We want there to be something that we can do, some way that we can please God and make God like us. It allows us to stay in control of our own lives if we can point to something and say, “that’s where I got saved, right after I did this” or some such statement.
We want to be able to say “I was humble and chose the low seat every day of my life and so I deserve to get into heaven.”
I think we’re not exactly putting the cart before the horse; we’re unable to tell which one’s which.
I blame the lectionary. That’s an easy mark; nobody knows what it is and it just imposes its will on us all. It is the set of scriptures that I and a fair number of other pastors preach from in order to keep the whole Biblical story in line. It’s what decided to put the Old Testament Proverbs 25 right alongside the words of Christ, as if they were saying the same thing.
But they’re not, at least not quite.
You see, no amount of humility will make you fit for heaven without Christ abiding with you and if Christ truly abides with you then no amount of humility will feel in any way troubling, or burdensome and so it will not matter where you sit. Humility is not a curse or a burden or a punishment. Humility before God is merely the truth. Maybe merely was the wrong word because that is truth with a capital T, the kind of truth that both convicts and frees you.
Jesus is not describing a method of “getting exalted anyway.” This is not a “get blessed quick” scheme, or a “get out of hell free” card.
It is the grace of God that saves, and Jesus who abides, and the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sanctifies but if none of that is true, then exalting yourself, or humbling yourself is nothing at all. If all of that is true, and you live in that Truth, then you will no longer grasp at the place of the powerful, and you will not miss it either. You will take your place with the lowly and the holy and feel deprived not a bit for you will know that all are one in the eyes of God. You will walk securely in the knowledge that you are not sitting there in hopes of being lifted up to a higher station, that maybe the host of the banquet will honor you and your great humility by taking it away; you will see that you have already been lifted up, already been set free of the chains of stature and position and wealth and honor and respect and all the rest and given the singular honor of being a child of God and even better than that, a child of God who abides with God.
What further honor do you require?
It is an odd presumption that acting with humility and the knowledge of the truth means being lowly and never aspiring to more, as if choosing to know and love God first means you never want to be a doctor or a lawyer or live in a nice house.
It is an equally odd presumption that doing things with a sense of ethics and humility attached will necessarily diminish the investment returns, as if planting your seed on faithful ground is somehow less likely to bring great blessings than planting your seed on ground managed, fertilized, tilled and watered by the hand of man, who really knows how to get things done.
It’s hard to dispute, after all, as a wise man once said, “Most Americans think they hit a home run in the game of life, overlooking the fact that they were born on third base.” It is true that even poverty, crushing and horrible as it is in this country, is like a week at club med compared to the day to day living in some corners of the globe where they have poverty we simply cannot imagine.
Obviously that gives anyone born here an advantage over those not so fortunate. How could we help but climb higher than those who were born under less auspicious circumstances, after all, we have stable borders, no roaming warlords, decent roads for the time being and free public education, for the time being.
What if the presumption were wrong? What if following in the way, as the bible says, was the very best springboard of all for a life lived better, lived successfully, with all of the amenities and salvation?
What if the rewards were not merely money, power and fame but also friends, family, and community? Mark says “a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
Even with the persecutions we’re better off than had Jesus never come to us, lives lived are richer and fuller, the stress of being first in line is no longer our driving force since we know that we are in the line at all because Jesus died to set us free and to make all men and women our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, a hundredfold now in this age.
Humility is not the key to the kingdom yet to come it is the symptom of the kingdom that is already here, the mark of those who already know what it is to be exalted and so do not need to strive for the tarnished honors of men at the expense of our blessings.
We can seek them, but from a different starting place, a different center from which we can grow into whatever we are called to be.
Butcher, baker, candlestick makes, investment banker, regular banker, whatever, in recent years we seem to have lost the expectation that people with power or influence will have any humility, any ethics. Look around at the results. When we stop expecting that all endeavors might have a blessed beginning, we allow for striving for the sake of the striving, for the money or the power, for the really good seat at the banquet.
What if we were to expect better?
Now I am not advocating that we demand Christian ethics from everyone. Nobody is saved at the point of the sword, only the cross can do that. But what would it be like if we began to lead that way, succeeding with Jesus at our core, thriving without bragging or swaggering, living lives of unmitigated joy in the knowledge of the Lord?
How could we transform the world if we kept Christ as our center?
I am also not saying that in the “Keep Christ in Christmas” sense either, a sense of entitlement, or a sense of defensiveness, as if the reality of Jesus somehow hung in the balance.
Jesus does not need my help. Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of the promises made to humanity a very long time ago and the very imprint of God’s love upon the world in which we live. “Us having Jesus’ back” is completely meaningless.
I mean keeping Christ at our center in the sense of embracing the truth that we are not exalted by anything that ever happens to us so much as we are exalted by being put in our place by the force of the law and its stinging barbs, guilt and shame and then being lifted out of that lowly place and given a seat, any seat at the feast that surpasses our understanding or merit by the hand of Christ, carrying our load of sin and putting it to death. That truth will make all other honors pale, and all true blessings shine like the noonday sun yesterday.
Keeping Christ at the center doesn’t mean wearing a bracelet that asks “What would Jesus Do?” but instead holding fast to the knowledge of what did Jesus do for the sake of us all and then moving forward into the world, our families and our careers forever changed by the knowledge.
Keeping Christ at the center is just that. Ceding the place of honor to Him and allowing Him to exalt you, letting the light of His salvation shine in and through you, marking you, empowering you to carry that light into the world. From that center there is nowhere we cannot grow into, no height that will be too high for us to reach, no journey too far to travel, and no accolade so high as to distract us from the truth.
What is at the center? From what point do you embark on your journeys?
Each of us embarks on a hundred journeys in this life. We embark on school and we embark on the journey of adulthood, some of us sooner some of us later than others. We embark on careers and on marriage and parenthood and home ownership and a million other things, great and important and petty and meaningless.
We do, however invest a lot into those journeys. We invest our image, our futures, our pride and our hope. We invest all of the things we convince ourselves are important; all of the things we convince ourselves are the most important thing. “Our lives, Our Fortunes and our sacred honor” so the revolutionary warriors said were their most prized possessions.
Let Christ be at the center, and see what a prized possession really is as Jesus claims you for His prized possession and beloved child. Then go do what you do.