Monday, September 05, 2022

Humbled To Be Exalted

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Humbled To Be Exalted. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 14:1-14

For anyone who has been reading through St Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, the opening verse of our Gospel reading this week ought to come as something of a surprise. St Luke writes about how, ‘on one occasion’, Jesus goes to the ‘house of a leader of the Pharisees’ for a meal on the Sabbath. Think for a moment of what we have been told so far in St Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees have accused Jesus of blasphemy when he forgave the sins of the paralytic who was let down through the roof by his friends (Luke 5:21). They have criticized his disciples for not fasting (5:35) and for doing what they consider to be work when the disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath (Luke 6:2). The Pharisees meant it as a criticism of Jesus himself for letting them. The Pharisees were waiting to accuse Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7) and are out to get him after he does (Luke 6:11).

Two previous meals at the houses of Pharisees haven’t gone too well. At the first, a prostitute, having learned that Jesus is eating at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:37), finds her way into the house and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and wipes them with her hair (Luke 7:38). When Jesus’ host reacts negatively to Jesus for letting the woman touch him because the Pharisee sees her as a sinner, Jesus reprimands the Pharisee and forgives the woman (Luke 7:44-48).

At the second meal recorded by St Luke, the Pharisee who is Jesus’ host expresses amazement that Jesus does not ritually wash before the meal in the way the Pharisees do (Luke 11:38). This leads Jesus to a general condemnation of the attitudes and behaviour of the Pharisees, comparing them to ‘unmarked graves’ (Luke 11:44).

This is a very derogatory metaphor. An unmarked grave, of course, looks like any other piece of land. However, by walking over it, people are in danger of making themselves ritually unclean. According to God’s Law, physical contact with those who have died renders a person ritually unclean (Numbers 5:2; 19:11–13). The irony is that the Pharisees were very concerned about ritual cleanliness, and Jesus’ host at the dinner was amazed at Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for it. Jesus says that while the Pharisees appear clean, not only are they unclean on the inside, being full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39), they threaten to make those they come into contact with unclean too.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pharisees become very hostile toward Jesus (Luke 11:53-54). Jesus for his part warns his disciples to beware of their hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).

It is, then, against this background of hostility that a leader of the Pharisees, no less, invites Jesus for a meal at his house on the Sabbath. The hostility is still there despite the hospitality the Pharisee is showing to Jesus, and St Luke tells us they are watching him closely. It is, however, worth noting that the Pharisees see Jesus as someone significant and worth bothering with. By now, they know that Jesus is capable of doing things on the Sabbath of which they disapprove. Jesus does not disappoint them!

There appears in front of Jesus a man with edema (some translations translate the Greek word as ‘dropsy’). Jesus asks the experts in the law and the Pharisees present whether it is lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not. They refuse to answer, so Jesus heals the man anyway. The Pharisees may be silent, but Jesus is not. Jesus points out that if they have an animal who gets into trouble on the Sabbath, they will immediately come to its aid. They cannot reply to this, as they know it is true. Jesus, however, hasn’t finished with them yet.

Jesus notices how the guests at the meal choose the ‘places of honour’. This is something Jesus has previously criticized the Pharisees for doing (Luke 11:43). St Luke tells us that as a consequence, Jesus tells them a parable. When, Jesus says, they are invited to a wedding banquet, they should not sit in the ‘place of honour’ in case someone more important than them comes, and they are asked to move down. Instead, they should take the lowest place, then they are more likely to be asked by the host to move up higher. Jesus is talking in a culture in which honour and shame are very important. In being asked to move down, a person would be ‘shamed’. In being asked to move up, they would be ‘honoured’. We might say that it is all about ‘face’.

Jesus, however, isn’t simply talking about seating at a wedding. It is, St Luke writes, a ‘parable’, that is, Jesus is using how people behave at a wedding banquet as an illustration to make an important point about what our attitude should be more generally. Jesus says:

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)

Having made this point, Jesus turns to his host. Dinners with Jesus are never boring!

Jesus tells his host that when he gives a lunch or dinner, rather than inviting his friends and relatives or rich neighbours, he should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. If he invites his friends and relatives or his rich neighbours, they may invite him back and his hospitality would be repaid. If he invites the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, they won’t be able to repay him, and he will be repaid instead by God at the resurrection of the righteous.

This, again, is a ‘parable’ in that Jesus is using an illustration to encourage his host to be ‘inclusive’ in his outlook and not to limit who he reaches out to. One of the guests at the meal, on hearing this, clearly realizes that there is more to what Jesus is saying than the issue of whom to invite to a meal. They somewhat piously say to Jesus:

‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ (Luke 14:15)

Jesus replies by telling another parable (Luke 14:25-33). A man gives a great dinner and invites many. The invitation to the dinner has gone out in advance. When the time for the dinner to take place comes, the man sends his slave to tell everyone who has been invited that the dinner is now ready. All those who have been invited, however, begin to make excuses.

The first says he has bought land that he has to go and see. Another that he has bought five yoke of oxen that he has to try out. Another makes the excuse that he has just got married. Commentators are divided over whether these excuses are real or made up. As it is a parable, we are not expected to push the details. The point is that in the parable the invited guests made excuses rather than go to the dinner. The excuses are to do with property, occupation, and family. Whether the excuses are real or not is beside the point; as Jesus will go on to say, the dinner should have taken precedence over all other commitments.

When the slave reports their excuses to his master, the master becomes angry and orders his slave to go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. The slave reports back that this has been done, but there is still room for more people. The master orders the slave to go out again and compel people to come in, so that his house may be filled. It is important not to stop there, and to hear what the master says as the conclusion to this. The master says:

‘For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’ (Luke 14:24)

Those originally invited won’t now be allowed to attend the dinner, even if they change their mind and want to. It’s too late; they have had their chance.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching, inviting God’s people to ‘eat bread in the Kingdom of God’. Many, however, are making excuses or are tempted to do so! Those who are responding are not those who would have been expected to do so. It is people like the Pharisees and experts in the Law who are making excuses while tax-collectors and prostitutes are gladly accepting Jesus’ invitation. Jesus is explaining how even now in his ministry the invitation to the Kingdom is being extended to those not normally included, and Jesus is looking forward to the day when the invitation will be extended even further to include the Gentiles.

Engaging our critics and opponents

We feel safe today criticizing the Pharisees. It is now just accepted that they were shallow, legalistic, and hypocritical. We don’t have a good word to say for them. However, the fact that Jesus went so often to share a meal with the Pharisees and regularly engaged in argument and debate with them suggests there is another side to the story.

Firstly, we should not tar them all with the same brush. I recently came across a statement in a commentary that no Pharisee became a disciple of Jesus during his ministry. I am not sure that is quite true. It is certainly true that we don’t know of any becoming one of the 12 apostles, but it was, after all, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who together with another Jewish leader and disciple of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, buried Jesus when other disciples had abandoned him.

St Luke tells us in chapter 15 of the book of Acts that a significant number of the Pharisees joined the Church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 15:5). It is also worth remembering that it was St Paul, himself a Pharisee, who was one of those who led the way in taking God’s invitation to the Gentiles. St Paul was like the slave in the parable who was sent out by the master to compel people to come in.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the first major arguments in the Church was between believers in the Church who were Pharisees. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35), the argument seems to have been principally between the Pharisees who had become believers and St Paul.

It was perhaps because Jesus took so much time to engage with the Pharisees during his ministry that so many eventually became believers and that the Pharisees came to have so much influence in the Church.

Engaging with those who criticize or oppose us doesn’t mean compromising our message or approving of the behaviour of those we engage with. Jesus was fiercely critical of the Pharisees. He didn’t hesitate to tell the Pharisees what his criticism of them was. It is easy to share our message with those who agree with us. It is also easy to meet with those we don’t agree with if we keep quiet about our disagreements. Jesus challenges us to share our message with those who disagree with us and with those who reject and oppose us. We are to share the good news of Jesus with people and love those we share it with.

Loving people, however, does not mean that we should be frightened to tell them why we think they are wrong. For Jesus, loving the prostitute meant forgiving her sins and not condemning her; loving the Pharisees meant pointing out their sin and condemning their hypocrisy.

Seeing our own sin first

Of course, we never identify with the Pharisees. They are those who we are not in any way alike. In chapter 18 of his Gospel, St Luke has Jesus’ famous parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who go to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is very pleased with himself. He thanks God that he is not like other people. He is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer, and he is not like the tax-collector. The Pharisee tells God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of what he gets. The tax-collector, however, won’t even lift his eyes to heaven and standing far off simply asks God to be merciful to him, a sinner. Jesus says that it is the tax-collector who went home right with God. Interestingly, the conclusion that Jesus draws for us from this is the same as Jesus draws from the parable in our reading this week. Jesus says:

‘… for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:14)

The story is told of a church Bible study group. After studying Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who went to the Temple to pray, there is a time of prayer. The Bible study leader begins it by praying, ‘Lord, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee in our Bible study tonight’!

That seems to be the attitude of most churchgoers, although we might not express it so plainly. We need to remember that the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was telling the truth. He wasn’t a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer, and he did fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that he earned. As far as anyone could tell, the Pharisee was a deeply devout and committed person. He was definitely, for example, someone who today would get elected to the church synod and be invited to serve on various church committees. Jesus makes clear that what the Pharisees did was not wrong (Luke 11:42), rather they had allowed their concern to get it right in all the details to blind them to some of the big things that really mattered. They had also in their genuine commitment to God’s Law become self-satisfied and pleased with themselves. They were not like other people who did not care about God’s Law.

It was because they were committed people and wanted to keep God’s Law that the Pharisees were so concerned about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was, after all, one of the most important commandments in God’s Law. But in their very desire to keep God’s Law, the Pharisees ended up missing the point of it. Jesus endeavours to remind them what the point of the command to keep the Sabbath is all about by asking them whether it is lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not (Luke 14:3)?

You may remember how it was popular at one time for church people when they faced difficult choices and decisions to ask WWJD? – that is, ‘what would Jesus do?’ People would wear jewellery with these letters on it. The idea being that we should follow the example of Jesus and look to him for guidance in what we do.

We need also to ask WWJS? – that is, ‘what would Jesus say?’ Jesus had a lot to say about the Pharisees and how they had allowed themselves to go wrong, even when they were trying to do what was right. What would Jesus say about us and about how we are doing both as a church and as individuals? Would Jesus be pleased with us and in the effort we are putting in to reaching out to people and compelling them to come in?

It is very easy to feel pleased with ourselves and to think that we are not doing too badly. We can only think and feel like this when we compare ourselves with others and look down on them, as the Pharisee did with the tax-collector.

St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) in her writing always speaks of herself as a sinner who is unworthy of God’s grace in her life. Yet if ever anyone was committed to doing God’s will and to living as God wanted, it was St Catherine. So, is she just saying what she says about her unworthiness because it is what she thinks she ought to say or in order to sound holy? No, not at all. St Catherine says it and means it because she is looking at herself in the light of God and not in light of other people. She knew that seen in the light of God, she was a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, no matter how good she might appear when compared to other people. St Catherine humbled herself, as Jesus said we must, and God exalted her, as Jesus also said he would. St Catherine is now a doctor of the Church and an inspiration to all who seek to follow her example of obedience.

Those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled

What if anything is the relevance of this to us today, especially as we look forward to another academic year? Jesus criticized the Pharisees not simply for their behaviour but for their values and attitudes.

As we have been seeing as we have been reading through St Luke’s Gospel, at the heart of Jesus’ message was the command to seek the Kingdom of God above all else, to deny oneself, and to follow him. Society in the 21st century in the developed world sees no point in seeking the Kingdom of God, for the simple reason that it doesn’t believe in God. It is pointless seeking what does not exist.

But if God does not exist, what should I seek? In the story of Moses and the burning bush, God sends Moses to Egypt to tell Pharoah to let God’s people go. Moses asks God what he should say when the people of Israel ask him the name of the one who sent him. God replies, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. Moses is to tell the people of Israel that ‘I AM’ has sent him to them (Exodus 3:14).

Jesus takes this up, and in St John’s Gospel, in particular, we have the well-known ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus. Jesus also famously says in a discussion about Abraham with Jews in Jerusalem:

‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ (Luke 8:58)

People today begin somewhere entirely different. Descartes (1596-1650) said ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore, I am’. Descartes himself didn’t mean to replace God with the Self, but the whole drift of thought since Descartes has been to do precisely that. God is not the ‘I am’ upon whom my existence depends, I am: me, myself, I. Rather than seeking meaning in something external to myself, I must seek it in myself. As Shakespeare put it, ‘To thine own self be true’. And so, the dominant philosophy of our day can be summed up simply as, ‘Be true to yourself; listen to your heart; follow your dreams.’

There are two principal problems with this. Firstly, what does it mean to be true to yourself? We are encouraged to think that there are no limits. You must find yourself in the way people used to think they should find God. One problem, however, has been that in the search for authenticity and in the attempt to be true to themself some have been led into very questionable and destructive behaviours. The result has been rather than finding themself, many have been left feeling very lost.

Secondly, the desire to be ourself also assumes that we actually have the freedom to be ourself. Most people still labour under the illusion that they have the freedom to be whoever they want to be. It was this illusion that was at the heart of the thinking that came out of the social and political movements of the 20th century, and which is now reaching its peak. You see it, for example, in the transgender movement. Gender, it is argued, is not the same as the biological sex as I was born as. So, it is said, while parents, schools, and society in general may try to determine my gender for me, gender is something I alone can and should choose. I may, so the argument goes, be biologically female, but, in truth, I really may be a man. If that is the case, I am free to change my body to fit with the person who I know I am.

The myth of human freedom that tells me I should be free to decide my destiny for myself also lies behind some of the political movements that we have seen in recent years here in Hong Kong.

Let me make a prophecy. In the next two decades, people are going to begin to realize what has been true all along, that is, that they are not free, that the idea of free will is a myth, and that what they have been pursuing in the name of freedom has only led to them becoming more enslaved. Having rejected any objective value and truth, there is nothing and no-one for them to turn to for help.

Jesus said that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and this applies to both individuals and society. But the opposite is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted. We need to show people where true freedom can be found and that is in God, who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We need to raise our children with the values and attitudes of the Kingdom of God not those of the world, and that’s the challenge we face in the year ahead and to which we are committing ourselves at this the start of a new school year.

The Eleventh Sunday of Trinity this year falls on August 28, the Feast Day of St Augustine. It seems appropriate, then, to close with a prayer by him. St Augustine prayed:

Eternal God,
the light of the minds that know you,
the joy of the hearts that love you,
and the strength of the wills that serve you:
grant us so to know you that we may truly love you,
so to love you that we may truly serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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