Putting Others First
Text: Luke 14:1-14
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s hard to put other people ahead of yourself. If you don’t believe me, then try this test: next time you’re in the Jewel or Costco parking lot, see how inclined you are to want to let someone in ahead of you when you’ve been waiting forever to get out. Or see how you feel about letting a stranger in line ahead of you, especially when they try to cut or are thoughtless or loud or rude, after you’ve been waiting a long time. Or simply drive down the Eisenhower and see how many people, yourself included, have a tough time letting someone else in, or pass, or exit, or merge. And that’s just for someone you’ve been aware of for a few seconds, who you know you’ll never have to see again afterward. The point is that it’s hard to put other people ahead of ourselves.
There are exceptions, of course. A mother’s heart often has no trouble putting her crying baby ahead of her own wants or needs. For those we love—spouses, fiancés, family—we’re able to step back and put them first. But that fact that we do this for so very few people on a regular and willing basis shows that these are exceptions and not the rule. No one would do for a stranger what they would for their own child or loved one.
It’s hard to put others first, especially if we don’t know or like them. And yet, Jesus tells us today, “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.” Now of course, Jesus isn’t only talking about banquets and celebratory meals. The idea is to supposed to be extended to all of life. As St. Paul sums up this lesson in Philippians: “In humility, count others more significant than yourselves.”
Maybe we’ve heard this parable or lesson so much that it doesn’t have as much impact. Or maybe we just keep it partitioned off in our minds; one of those things we know we’re supposed to do, but aren’t that great at putting it into practice, like exercising or budgeting. But really give some thought to this. Imagine you’ve been invited to a big celebration. It could be a birthday party or anniversary dinner or wedding reception. You know the guest of honor very well. They’re a friend, a close family member, whoever. You’ve been looking forward to celebrating with them. You went all out for the event, bought new clothes just for the occasion, the whole nine yards. There’s a spot next to them, so you sit down beside them. You’re close, so it’s natural. You’re about to start talking when suddenly you’re told to move somewhere else because someone you’ve never met before has arrived and they need to talk to the guest of honor. They’re clearly more important than you, otherwise you wouldn’t have been asked to move. They’re even closer with the guest of honor than you are, so now you have to go and find any seat that’s open, at another table, in another room, with people you don’t know, who may only know the host casually. Be honest: you would bristle at having that person put ahead of you. It would sting.
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. That’s the lesson today. The Scriptures are perfectly clear in warning against self-focused pride. Pride goes before a fall, Solomon warns us in Proverbs. And again, that book of wisdom has said this morning, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence, or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” But we’re completely addicted to it, to putting ourselves ahead of others, to titles and prestige, to things that will get approving nods, to honor and glory. Pride is practically worshiped. Yet Jesus says to us, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So what are we to do about it? Our Lord and Teacher has a solution. “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.” There’s a lot to unpack in that, but there’s one point that stands out. Honor cannot be given to oneself. Honor can only be bestowed by someone with the authority and clout to do it. Consider our earthly honors. The Congressional Medal of Honor can only be given by Congress. The title of valedictorian is determined by faculty and staff of a school. A Person of the Year award can only be granted by whatever group is doing the naming. None of those can be claimed by someone for themselves. So Jesus teaches us, true honor comes from someone greater, even if we don’t always want to recognize that others are ahead of us and can do that. But only the host can say, “Friend, move up higher.” And that can only happen when we put others ahead of ourselves, when there’s a higher place for us to be moved up to.
But this lesson is about so much more than worldly honor. Jesus really doesn’t put much stock in the acclamations and awards given by the world that’s constantly running away from Him and His Word. So it’s not about getting more respect in the world. Remember, the first ones to hear this lesson in the parable today were the Pharisees, who had no problem with putting up a face of false modesty while their hearts craved honor and glory. In that way, they’re a lot like us today. No one really needs to be taught how to be sneaky about fishing for compliments or seeking respect and honor from other people, even if it’s through unconventional ways.
So this lesson is about more than holy tricks to gain respect and influence people. It’s about something else. This parable teaches us about our proper view of world and attitude toward others only because it teaches us how Jesus has viewed and treated others as being more worthy of honor than Himself. He took on human flesh to share in our humanity. When He was born, it was in a stable, while all the other guests in Bethlehem had houses and inns to stay in. His entire ministry was one of serving and showing mercy to the lowest, the unclean, the outsiders. His last night before His death, He took on the servant’s role and washed the feet of His disciples, taking the lowest position at that banquet. In His death, He put the entire world ahead of Him, even those who mocked Him and beat Him and crucified Him; putting all of us first as He suffered and died for our sins. In all this, Jesus, the greatest, the host, the guest of honor, has said, “Friend, move up higher. Take my seat.” So we are seated right next to the Almighty God the Father. You are granted the greatest honor imaginable by the being given Jesus’ place of love and favor beside the Father, while Jesus takes the lowest place at the table, as servant of all. He becomes an outsider bearing the guests’ cost, their punishment, their shame.
This is something we can never seize for ourselves, just as we can’t seize any gift. It’s only given in grace. It’s only possible when we humble ourselves and recognize that we don’t deserve that high place. Only when we seat ourselves at the lowest spot is it possible to move up. So we admit that we are by nature sinful and unclean, that we have sinned against the Host in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone; that we deserve present and eternal punishment. And when we admit that, we have nowhere to go but up. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He lifts us up with forgiveness spoken immediately after that confession. When we recognize our great need and kneel before Him at the Communion rail, Jesus raises us up through the feast of eternal life in His body and blood, closer to Him now than anyone else. Jesus has set out a feast, so be one of the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the lost; for these are who He invites. Then you will be blessed, you will be exalted and raised to glory in the resurrection of the justified—those forgiven and loved by the Lord. In the name of Jesus, the Host of the eternal wedding feast, Amen.