Humble Yourself; Exalt Your Neighbor
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“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Aimee and I went to a concert at the Denny Sanford Premier Center a couple of weeks ago. The tickets were a gift and we got really nice seats on the floor only a few rows back. During the concert there was a little commotion as a security person followed a couple up toward the front. The security person spoke to the couple who were seated, looked at their tickets, said a couple of words, and then they got up and sheepishly made their way to the nosebleed section that they were supposed to sit in. I imagined the irritation of the couple who needed to have someone from security open up their seats. But even more, I thought of how embarrassing it would be to be caught in seats that were obviously much better than the ones you had paid for.
Now consider this scene: You’re still out of breath and a little lightheaded from walking all the stairs up to your seat located in the far, top corner of the stadium. The players warming up on the field look like action figures, and you can’t see where the ball is without looking on the large screen. You’re startled when one of the ushers taps you on the shoulder. He tells you that your seat number was drawn and you are today’s lucky fan of the game. You need to come with him because he has another seat for you. Down and down you go until you come to one of the VIP suites. You’ve been invited to be a personal guest of the team owner. He greets you at the door and invites you watch the game with him. He points you to the large selection of snacks and beverages and tells you to help yourself. It’s a seat you could have never afforded yourself. And you most certainly would have been thrown out if you tried to sneak in. But here you sit, experiencing the game in a way that you never imagined was possible.
Jesus attends a meal at the home of a Pharisee. He notices how the guests choose the place of honor for themselves. Then as now, the place where one was seated during a banquet indicated social rank. In the absence of assigned seating, guests were expected to give way to those of higher rank of society. Everyone knew that the most prestigious places near the head of the group were for the VIPs.
The principle that Jesus enunciates here seems to be the same as that from our passage from Proverbs: “When in doubt, err on the side of humility.” Or as my Grandma would say, “Make sure you don’t get too big for your britches!” The perils of overestimating one’s importance are far greater than the pitfalls of underestimating it. In this scenario, the person who actually deserves the seat is disrespected. The host is also put out, since now he has to come over and play the role of bouncer with one of his invited guests.
There is a spiritual application here: When we get out of place by acting haughtily, we not only offend a more deserving neighbor, but also the Lord, who has established each in his own station. It’s hard to accept one’s comeuppance under any circumstances; however, bearing public humiliation is the worst way to undergo ego reduction. Long before Jesus, Solomon wrote: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23). The word picture Jesus paints here perfectly illustrates that truth.
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. This is the classic expression of Luke’s great reversal theme. While this dynamic plays itself out on a daily basis, it will ultimately be realized on the Last Day. Then, those who humbly confessed their sins and trusted in Christ’s forgiveness will be raised up in glory. Hus noted that Jesus’ disciples took this admonition to heart and followed Jesus in His example of humility: “[The apostles], like Christ, began to do good by excelling in good works and not by receiving kisses, given as unto God. For they despised mundane honors.”[i]
For his part, Calvin stated that Christian humility is rooted in the awareness that anything good within us is a gift of grace:
It is a manifestation of pride to boast of the gifts of God, as if there were any excellence in ourselves, that would exalt us on the ground of our own merit. Humility, on the other hand, must be not only an unfeigned abasement, but a real annihilation of ourselves, proceeding from a thorough knowledge of our own weakness, the entire absence of lofty pretensions, and a conviction that whatever excellence we possess comes from the grace of God alone.[ii]
Jesus illustrates how pride leads to a fall, while the humble are brought up to a higher place. We should take this lesson to heart: It is better to let others applaud and promote you than to claim honor and praise for yourself. No matter what others say or do, our greatest promotion will come when the heavenly Father calls us to join Him at the great messianic banquet in heaven. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Having criticized the behavior of the guests, Jesus then turns to the host:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
Jesus does not issue an absolute prohibition against including family and friends in parties. Rather, He criticizes the custom of inviting only those people with whom one has a quid pro quo arrangement, that is, people who can invite you in return and you be repaid. Such invitations are not true generosity, but merely loving those who love you already.
When people show true generosity, without an eye to what they might receive in return, they will delight to share with those of a lower social status and without the economic means to pay them back. And yet, Jesus says, such generosity will be richly rewarded—though not necessarily in this age, but in the one to come. Just as the “great reversal” is only fully realized on the Last Day, so also will the faithful have to wait for this promise to be fulfilled.
Commenting on this passage, Bengel contrasts the rewards God will bestow with the measly returns we get when we always play tit-for-tat:
Who is there that would wish that all his acts in this life should be recompensed according to their desert? And yet there are not wanting persons, who wish that everything whatever, which they give or lend, should be most quickly, abundantly, and with accumulated interest, repaid to them…. One might suppose that there was no resurrection at hand or recompense of men’s deed, nay, indeed as if nothing is to be taken away (wrested) from those who practically deny their faith in things future by their unbridled panting after things present.[iii]
“Humble yourself and exalt your neighbor.” That’s the essence of the law in today’s text. But it’s hard to be humble, isn’t it? For we are, by our fallen nature, prideful, selfish sinners. And the moment you start thinking about humility, you’ve already started to think about yourself. And as much as that principle applies to daily life, even more it applies to our life in God’s kingdom.
Like the guests at the Pharisee’s home or the couple who tried to move into better seats, we are tempted to seat ourselves in God’s presence based upon our works or merits. Our kindness toward others. Our identification with a particular church, our faithful attendance, our giving to the church, or out serving on a church board. A perceived obedience to God’s commandments. A belief that faith is or our own doing, something we should be rewarded for attaining.
Like the host Pharisee, we often see ourselves as above others. Self-help books preach that if we want be winners, we should only spend time with winners. We see the others and rationalize that they don’t really have anything to offer us, to further our pursuits or goals. It would be embarrassing to be seen with some of them, certainly inconvenient. Others will not think highly of us if they see us spending so much time with the downtrodden and outcasts of society.
Self-glorifying seems so natural in our world, which constantly tells us: “Hard work will get you moving up the ladder.” “You’ve earned it or you’ve deserved it.” “If you try as hard as you can, you should be rewarded.” Or that old stand-by: “You’re not near as bad as the people sitting next to you.”
But God’s Word says different. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
These words put us in our place. It’s true! We are guilty! Suddenly, we remember countless ways we’ve fallen short. We’ve failed to humble ourselves, and we certainly haven’t done much to exalt our neighbor. Forget having one of the higher places are the heavenly banquet in the resurrection of the righteous, we don’t even deserve to sit at the kids’ table in the room off to the side. Stranded in our sin and banned from the eternal banquet, we are confronted with and humbled by our inability to seat ourselves in God’s presence based upon our own merits. We can do nothing but confess our sins. Before God, we slink to the lowest place.
Well… not quite the lowest place. That one, He took for Himself. Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:6-9). Christ clothed Himself in human flesh so that He might defeat death and the devil and deliver us from their power. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God was made like us in every way so that He could satisfy God’s wrath for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-17). He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses but maintained the righteousness we cannot (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, the Lamb of God and Scapegoat allowed Himself to be placed “outside the gate” (Hebrew 13:12), literally driven out of the city and crucified, to sanctify us by His blood.
For Jesus’ sake, God graciously seats you in His kingdom. The Lord clasps you on the shoulder with His nailed-scarred hand and bids: “Friend, move up higher! Come to the font and be washed in the baptismal waters and be joined to My death and resurrection. Friend, move up higher! Hear My Word, repent, and allow My Holy Spirit to create in you a new heart. Friend, move up higher! Eat and drink at My Table. Receive My true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Friend, move up higher. Remain in My presence forever, never be separated from Me again, and rejoice in the unending life I have given you. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Hus, John. The Church. P. 145. David S. Schaff, trans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915.
[ii] Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Rev. William Pringle, ed. 2:161. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845.
[iii] Bengel, John Albert. Gnonom of the New Testament. 2:129. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1877.