Summary: Jesus uses a couple of etiquette lessons to teach true humility. The point is simple (and repeated throughout scripture): If we lift ourselves up, God will put us down. If we lift others up, God will lift us up.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Dare to Be Humble
The Duke of Wellington once haughtily drew himself up to his full height and thundered to one of his staff officers, “God knows I have many faults, but being wrong is not one of them!” The best of us struggle with pride from time to time.
In today’s scripture Jesus gives us two lessons in social etiquette that are actually lessons in pride vs. humility. Jesus dares us to be humble. And his point is simple: If we lift ourselves up in pride, God will bring us down; but if we lift others up, God will lift us up. This point is so important that it’s emphasized at least seven other places across the Bible! (Luke 18:14; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 25:6–7; Matthew 18:4; Matthew 23:12; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).
So Jesus uses a couple of etiquette lessons to illustrate his point. First he talks about where to sit at a dinner party. He says, “Don’t pick the best seat in the house. If you do, you’re liable to be bumped. Instead,” he says, “pick the worst seat, and then you will be honored as the host moves you up the pecking order” (my paraphrase).
Jesus might have been thinking of Proverbs 25:6-7 which says, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.”
In Jesus’ day the Jews ate while reclining on couches, borrowing from Greek and Roman culture. For a dinner party like this one, the host would arrange several couches in a “U” formation. The host himself would sit at the middle of the “U”, and then the guests would sit in order of importance, with the most important closest to the host.
The host of this party was a Pharisee, a member of the religious elite, kind of like a “Christian Special Ops Guy.” The Pharisees were a prideful bunch. On other occasions (Luke 20:46, Mark 12:38-40) Jesus talked about how they liked to choose the best seat in the Synagogues and the place of honor at dinner parties. At the Synagogue, they went for the seat right up front next to the sacred scrolls, where everyone could see them. At dinner parties, they always went for the seat next to the host, to show how important they were.
But Jesus points out that, if a VIP arrives late, everyone will have to move down to a lower position to make room. Some of our modern translations miss the “slow-mo” scene Jesus describes. The original Greek wording emphasizes the person’s shame. The Amplified Classic paraphrase says, “Then, with humiliation and a guilty sense of impropriety, you will begin to take the lowest place.” Or the NRSV, “And then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.” It’s as if every -- step -- down – is a killer. The humiliation causes time itself to slow down as every eye is upon you; it’s almost worse than death itself!
Now you would hope that good Christians would be above this kind of petty power grabbing. Surely we wouldn’t squabble over such silly things as who gets the best seat. But it appears—we don’t know for sure—but it appears this very thing may have happened at the Last Supper itself. Luke 22:24 tells us that, right after Jesus passed the bread and the wine and then created a little controversy with the announcement of a traitor in their midst, right after all off that happened: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” It is likely they were arguing over who got to sit closest to Jesus!
Even the humblest among us sometime crave personal recognition. We want someone to look up to us. I am both looking forward to and dreading my award presentation this week. Can I receive it with thanks and appreciation without it going to my head? That’s always the challenge, isn’t it?
Yet Jesus teaches that if we put ourselves out there for attention, we’re just going to be bumped. But if we lower ourselves and put others first, we’re likely to be elevated. The Greek word in verse 10 is our English word “glory.” God will share some of his own glory with us! It’s not that we’re conniving for greater reward. Rather, it’s that God honors those who serve humbly. Commentator Darrell Bock writes, “Those who are truly humble persons recognize their desperate need for God, not any right to blessing” (“Luke,” in “IVP New Testament Commentator Series,” Ed. Grant Osborne).
In Philippians chapter 2, Paul gives the same advice: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not only looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Notice it’s okay to look to your own interests. You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself. Yet, we should also give the same attention to others. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s the antidote to pride. We are to serve like our King Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28). Someone once spelled out this priority system with the acronym, JOY: Jesus, Others, and You. That’s the right priority order. One pastor said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself ... less.” We think of ourselves less when we think of others more. It’s the antidote to pride.