“The Great Reversal: The Humble Exalted” (Luke 14:1-14)
Up is down, and down is up, in the kingdom of God. Or so it seems sometimes. Actually, the kingdom of God is all about turning things rightside-up. It’s just that rightside-up may look upside-down from our cockeyed perspective. From God’s perspective, though, the way things are in his kingdom is just right, the way things ought to be.
Such is the case with our text for today, the teaching of Jesus that we find in Luke 14. Here Jesus makes one of his many paradoxical statements, which he seems to do all over the place in the gospels, statements that sound like the reverse of what you might expect. Today’s example goes like this: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is so typical of Jesus. He always is saying things like this. Just last week we heard him say, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” And later on in the Gospel of Luke, in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Jesus concludes that story with virtually the same words that he says today: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And this theme really runs throughout the entire Bible. Theologians like to call this theme “the Great Reversal.” “The Great Reversal”: that in the end, God is going to turn things upside-down–or really, rightside-up–from the way they are now in the world. We find this idea in so many places in the Bible. For instance, Mary, in her Magnificat, says of God: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Both James and Peter, in their epistles, quote the same verse from Proverbs when they write: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
And so this same principle that holds true in the kingdom of God is stated here by Jesus in our text for today: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s the Great Reversal, yet again.
How do we come before God? Proud, or humble? How do we enter into God’s presence, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, or with a proper humility, realizing our sin and unworthiness? That is the big question we are confronted with today.
Jesus applies this teaching in the context of a real-life situation, that of being invited to a dinner party. Jesus himself was at a dinner party, invited to dine at the house of a big-shot Pharisee, and he noticed that many of the invited guests were trying to choose places of honor. Pharisees tended to be like that, always trying to make themselves look good and look important in front of others. Jesus says elsewhere of the scribes and Pharisees: “They love the places of honor at feasts.” And so that’s what they’re doing here at this feast.
So Jesus uses the occasion to tell them–and us–something that applies not only to dinner parties but also to the kingdom of God. He says: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 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.”
Now you’ve got to realize how a big-deal dinner party would go in the ancient Near East. Where you sat–actually, where you reclined at table, in relation to the other guests–was fairly important. In some ways, this would be similar to how it goes at a big-deal dinner party in our day–although as a culture we have grown less formal and more casual about such things in recent years. Nevertheless, if it is a big-deal dinner party, with a certain degree of formality, there are some unwritten rules that hold true, in Jesus’ day and in ours.
First of all, there’s a certain priority to the seating arrangements. And what you don’t do is, you don’t seat yourself higher up than you should. You don’t just plop yourself down at the head table, if you’re only a friend of the third cousin of the fourth bridesmaid. No, that isn’t done. Do that, and you will be asked to remove yourself and to take a place in the back, back near the kitchen, next to where the busboys take the dirty dishes. All you will gain from your advancing yourself is some justified embarrassment.
But what Jesus teaches here is about far more than proper etiquette at dinner parties. This is a principle that holds true in the kingdom of God. You know, all over the gospels Jesus is always comparing the kingdom of God to a wedding feast. A wedding feast, a wedding banquet, is just about the most joyous, celebratory occasion we have in human experience, across all cultures. We pull out all the stops at a wedding feast. It’s a big deal, and it is lavish, and it is full of joy. And this is what Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like. And so you want to be there, you want to be a part of this party.
Now, how do we get in? How do we come in? With what sort of attitude? Barging our way in, as though we own the joint, and “everybody ought to be paying attention to me,” and “give me a seat at the head table, because I deserve it”? “Look at me, how great I am!” No, of course not. That’s not how we come into God’s kingdom. That’s what Jesus warns us against in this parable.
Rather, we come before God with humility. And believe me, you and I have a lot to be humble about. Are you aware of your many sins? Of how your life has not matched up with God’s design, how you’ve messed things up over and over again? Think of the people you’ve hurt. Think of all the wrong turns you’ve taken, that you should have done differently. Think of how you’ve neglected God and his word, not listening to what he’s been telling you all these years. Dear brothers and sisters, how we’ve messed things up! This is why, if we are invited to come to the party–and we are–this is why we come, not with a big braggadocio and saying “Hey, look at me!” but rather we come before God in lowliness, in humility, in repentance, knowing how gracious God is to let us into his party.
But, oh, how gracious and how good God is that he does invite us in! He does! It’s all because of Christ, of course. Talk about the Great Reversal! This is the greatest reversal of all. For Christ, the one and only Son of God on high, came down from heaven and came to earth to be our brother. What did he do? He humbled himself. In the words of Philippians: “Christ Jesus . . . though he was in the form of God, 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.”
Yes, Jesus humbled himself by being lifted up . . . on a cross. And he did this for you. The Great Reversal thus is also the Great Exchange: Jesus took your sins. He gives you his righteousness. This is what God the Father sent him to do. And he did it, for you and for the whole world. And after humbling himself in the greatest way, Jesus now is the most highly exalted. Again from Philippians: “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.”
By our Lord’s sacrificial self-humbling, and by his glorious resurrection and exaltation–because of what Christ has done, and through faith in him, you now are lifted from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from shame to honor. You are invited to the banqueting hall, to the wedding feast, and, amazingly, you are given a place of honor at this party.
And so we come humbly. We’re invited now, today–we are invited to a foretaste of the feast to come, here at this Supper of the Lord, the Sacrament of the Altar. I’ve often said to people: Imagine a great big banner over this altar, and it says, “For Sinners Only.” Do you qualify? Are you a sinner? Do you know it? Then come. This is just the place for you. This is where you will find forgiveness for your sins, as you receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord, given and shed for you.
Do your sins bring you shame? Does your unworthiness bring you low? Frankly, this is as it should be. This is called repentance. But at the same time, now hear the voice of the gospel, calling you to faith and forgiveness. For today your host–and your host at this Supper is none other than Christ himself–today your host is saying to you, “Friend move up higher.” Dear friends, this is the Great Reversal, yet again: Poor, humble sinners like you and me are exalted, lifted up, by being invited to the great and eternal wedding feast in the kingdom of God. What a party it is, and what a party it will be!