Jesus observed how his fellow guests were choosing for themselves the places of honor and so he told them a parable. There are two errors we could make in understanding this passage. First, we might think, as many scholars do, that Jesus is simply talking about proper table etiquette – as if Jesus had nothing better to do than make sure we used good manners at the dinner table. Lutherans, however, are more prone to the opposite error. Having rightly understood that Jesus, not we, is the chief actor in every parable, we might disregard his instruction for how we ought to live.
With that in mind, how should we understand Jesus’ words: “Don’t try to get the best seat for yourself.” What does he mean? For starters, he means exactly what he said – and he’s talking to you. Because of your sinful nature you love to get the best seat. Stop it. You love to look out for yourself. Stop it. This isn’t the last word – the gospel is the last word – but it is Jesus’ word to us, and we need to hear it. Stop exalting yourself. It’s contrary to God’s will, it’s hurtful, it’s dumb, and it’s not who you are.
I just listed four reasons to stop being prideful. The first – it’s contrary to God’s will – concerns our relationship with God. We should be motivated by a sincere desire to please our Heavenly Father. But, of course, this means nothing to the carnal mind. He is by nature an enemy of God and he has no desire to please him or walk according to his will. The second concerns our neighbors –it’s hurtful. When we sin, when we exalt ourselves, we do so at the expense of those around us. Because of pride, 50% of marriages end in divorce. Selfishness has resulted in the murder of 60,000,000 unborn children in the United States alone. But sinful man shrugs off these statistics. The only number that matters to him is #1. And this leads to the third reason: Selfishness is dumb. It doesn’t work.
Jesus knows that the Pharisees don’t fear God or love their neighbors, but he also knows that trying to motivate sinful man along these lines is pointless. So he says in effect, “Pushing and shoving to get in the chief seat is going to backfire. You’ll end up at the bottom.” And now for the first time, the old Adam starts paying attention. You see, for all the energy that we expend looking out for ourselves, we don’t do a very good job of it. Truth be told, we're lousy at being selfish. Certainly we try, but we’re just bad at it. We’re like thieves that break into Fort Knox and steal the petty cash. We aren’t very good at taking care of ourselves. We’re like children who can’t stop until they’ve eaten the whole bag of candy, or the Israelites who gorged themselves on quail until it came out of their nostrils (Num 11:17). King Midas was bad at being selfish and we aren’t any better.
And so Jesus says, “Look! That ain’t the way to have fun, son. If you want the best seat, I’ll tell you how to get it.” Notice that Jesus never actually tells the unregenerate Pharisees to stop being selfish. He doesn’t say, “Stop wanting the best seat.” Instead he tells them how to improve their chances of getting it. This is simply a matter of good civil order. The law doesn’t have the power to change sinful nature, but it might prevent a knifing at your next Thanksgiving dinner. Jesus cares about that sort of thing.
But this is only part of the story. Jesus wasn’t born in a manger so that we could get along with our relatives on Christmas Day. He didn’t go to the cross and rise on Easter morning just so that we could enjoy ham dinner later that afternoon. The purpose of this parable – and the purpose of all Scripture – is as John says: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Ultimately then, this parable is about faith in Christ! and not table manners. Jesus is teaching us about salvation, not just unselfishness. Out of love for those who were his enemies, out of love for you, Jesus tells this parable. Listen carefully and you will hear that he is describing himself. He’s talking about the Crucifixion, and he’s calling you to faith: “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. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:10-11).
The first half of the final verse includes everyone. All sinful flesh. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Every mouth that boasts will be silenced. Every knee shall bow. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord. But notice that the second half of the verse is singular – he who humbles himself – the One who humbles himself will be exalted. There is no everyone here – there is only One! Jesus is speaking of himself, for no one else is capable of true humility. Sinful man may offer the best seat to his neighbor, but only because he hopes to be asked to move up higher. This looks like humility, but it’s just a sneakier version of pride. This is the way of the world, but it’s not the way of Christ. Jesus told his disciples, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them (Mt 20:25). But not so with you… For I am among you as the one who serves (Lk 22:26-27). Why are Christians different than the heathen? Because we are such humble people? No, because Jesus is among us as the one who serves, and he who humbled himself has been exalted.
Unlike us, Jesus actually had a legitimate reason to boast, to exalt himself. But though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the 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 a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:5-11).
Jesus watched the rulers and VIPs scrabbling for the best seats even as he, the Lord and Creator, was preparing to take the lowest seat of all – the cross. And while we, who were his enemies, looked for a way to put him to death, Jesus was looking for a way to give us eternal life. His parable is a call to repentance and faith. It’s an invitation to share in his humiliation, in his suffering, in his death. And as a baptized Christian, you do share in Christ’s humiliation. For, as Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).
Earlier, I mentioned four reasons for why we should put away pride: The first three are motivated by the Law: 1) Pride is contrary to the will of God, 2) It harms our neighbor, 3) It harms us. The fourth reason is motivated by the gospel, by the free gift of Christ: Pride is not who you are. Your sinful, prideful nature was put to death in baptism. It’s no longer you who lives, but Christ, the one who humbled himself. This is your new identity. This is who you are – for you are in Christ. You received the Holy Spirit in baptism, and you actually desire to love your neighbor. Therefore, when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place. Why? Because you have to? No. Because you can’t help it, because this is the nature of Christ. Because the same God who said, “Let there be light!” said to you, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Though all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh and the pride of life, in your baptism Christ promises you, “It shall not be so with you. For I am among you as the one who serves.” This is the gift of God, and is certain and sure, for Jesus who humbled himself for you, has been exalted and given authority over all heaven and earth. His word cannot be broken. Amen.