An old man lay sprawled across three seats in a movie theatre. When the usher noticed it, he whispered to the man, “Sorry sir, you’re only allowed one seat.” The man didn’t budge. The usher grew impatient. “Sir, if you don’t get up I’m going to have to call the manager.” Once again, the old man refused to move. The usher went back up the aisle and in a moment he returned with the manager. Together they tried repeatedly to move the old disheveled man, but with no success. Finally they summoned the police. The officer surveyed the situation briefly then asked, “All right buddy what’s your name?” “Eric” the old man moaned. Where you from, “Eric” asked the police officer. With a terrible strain in his voice, and without moving, Eric replied; “The balcony”…….
Who doesn’t want the best seat in the house? No one wants to sit in the nosebleed section to see the Spurs at the ATT center. Most of us just can’t afford to sit anywhere else! Best seat in the movie theater is dead center halfway up the aisles. Everyone wants a front row seat at a concert or magic show. No one likes the middle seat on an airplane. Kids want to sit “shotgun” in the front seat of the car. I’m convinced that the only place a person does not want to have the best seat in the front row is right here in church!
In today’s lesson, Jesus watches the mad race for the best seat in the house when He is invited to a Sabbath dinner. It was customary to invite the “visiting preacher,” in this case, Jesus, and other guests to dinner after the synagogue service. The place of honor at table at such banquets was at the center base of a low table that was shaped like a U. Those attending would sit in couches -called tricliniums-shared by three people.(1) Very cozy, right?
Luke’s account suggests this event was staged. V1 tells us, “The people there were observing him carefully,” indicating there was great interest in what Jesus might do at table rather than just exchanging pleasantries. That indication is heightened when a man suffering from dropsy appears. The host, “a ruler of the Pharisees” and guests, “lawyers”, it appears, are trying to ensnare Jesus into breaking Sabbath rules. Jesus knew such a plot might be in play. He went anyway.
The setting seems harmless enough; the Sabbath dinner table. I wonder how many still observe the Sabbath meal at the dinner table, praying, eating, discussing daily life? Many say the demise of this wonderful human tradition has led to the disintegration of the family unit, family values, the practice of Christian faith. In these latter days, it’s just another brick removed in the fortress of moral and ethical values, religious freedom, constitutional rights.
Today the dinner table is mobile; Jim’s or Denny’s, Cracker Barrel, Furr’s Cafeteria, that now Chicago-owned Texas institution, Whataburger, or Peter Piper Pizza. And it’s likely that not much about family or faith is discussed, since the noise level is high, other families are celebrating right next to you, or the racket of games drowns out any meaningful dialogue.
At the dinner table in today’s text, though, there is meaningful dialogue. Jesus sharply contrasts the nature of human traditions with the table manners of the heavenly kingdom – and all who would seek to sit at its dinner table. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” Jesus asks, No one answers. Their silence screams of self-righteous, selfish attitudes that would choose to have a person die on the Sabbath rather than show humility and compassion.
Jesus heals the man. For God’s order for human society is not subordinate to or predicated on human understanding. It is not a product of the whims of the fat and plenty, the prideful, or the greedy. God’s order, God’s will, comes from the loving eyes of the Father for His children, not their lot in life or the day of the week.
Having now gotten the attention of the dinner guests, Jesus teaches. He challenges the guests, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out? – Again, silence is the response. Jesus tells them the parable of the Wedding Banquet as an object lesson, a rule of thumb for those who are so caught up in self-service.
This is not your customary after church service fellowship or casuistry. This is a loving take-down. The ox, the child, the well and the man with dropsy are markers meant to open eyes and hearts to see something other than self. Jesus wants people to hear and see how those who believe, think, and act on their own interests at the head of the table, in the best seat of the house, are going against the will of God, the way of grace, the spirit of love.
With words and actions Jesus exposes the ungodliness of those who were looked upon to deliver and espouse godliness. Jesus shows mercy to the man with dropsy amid a dinner party dining on a diet of deceit. He shows compassion in an arena bloated with indifference. He practices humility at a table of would-be righteous people drunk on false and flawed pride.
Jesus rattles the foundation of human traditions that put self first, that accept the praises of others yet ignores their needs; that deny dependence on anyone else, God included, for their accomplishments in life. In the parable, Jesus teaches of the consequences of such character deficiencies: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Those words tear away the façade, the fake news curtain behind which the Pharisees hoped to build their case against Jesus. In spite of their meticulous care for God’s Law, their actions are contrary to God’s will. Their personal responsibilities and achievements, while important, are not the things upon which they are to build their character, values, or their worth.
Their worth and ours is to be viewed through the eyes of Father in heaven; eyes not tainted with sin. The place of honor at God’s table is something received, not earned. “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 with come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person, and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.’”(Lk14:8-9) I can’t speak for you, but as for me I’ll be happy with just a seat in the kingdom. I don’t care what row. There are no cheap seats in heaven.
Consider this: before the eyes and ears of this dais sits a man who didn’t just talk the talk or walk the walk. He walked the talk. Jesus walked a path that brought Him before the rich and powerful, strong and influential, the poor, the lame, the hungry, the lost. He humbled himself before lawgivers, shared meals with prostitutes, beggars, tax collectors, even His enemies.
I wonder if the dessert that day was a slice of humble pie. Humility occupied only 1/3 of one couch that day. Humilty is not exactly a household word today either. When was the last time you heard anyone say, “How can I be more humble?” A Proverb says: this about humility: “A man’s pride will bring him low; but the humble in spirit retains honor. (Proverbs 29:23)
Truth is, we live in a pride-filled world with a gluttonous desire for glory. Only the best seat in the house will suffice. No playing second-fiddle, no second place finish, the meek need not apply. The trinitarian logo – the cozy triclinium for the self-effacing - is Me, Myself, and I. It works well in the world, not so well in the kingdom; not at all in the kingdom. That’s the message Jesus gives to the diners and all those being fed by His Word still today.
It’s easy to appear humble, but true humility is seen only by looking at oneself in the same way God looks at us; seeing in one’s character the loving character of Jesus himself who said that true greatness is demonstrated by our service and love for one another. A Lutheran pastor wrote, “Humility is not some kind of badge you wear. The only way to reveal your humility is if you treat others more highly than yourself. It’s the old formula for JOY, J.O.Y. = JESUS FIRST – OTHERS SECOND – YOURSELF LAST.
I’ve heard it said that pride is the only disease that makes everyone sick except the one who has it. The Dutch painter, Bosch, painted a picture of what Catholics see as the seven deadly sins, and for pride and vanity it was the picture of a woman looking at her face in a mirror held by the devil. Pride gets in the way of humility. Jesus embodied humility. That didn’t keep Him from walking, teaching, preaching, caring for others and bearing witness to God’s grace through His own life and acts.
We too have been called to witness and proclaim His grace. Just as He invited us to join Him in faith, so too are we to invite others join in the feast of His saving Gospel: “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk. 14:14) The world today doesn’t embrace beggars, the street people, the ones on every corner with a sign; the very ones Jesus speaks of today. But consider this:
Today, when you come to this rail to feast on the meal Jesus prepares for you, how will approach it: prideful, standing tall? Or standing with head bowed, hands empty, outstretched as a beggar to receive the blessed gift of the Lord’s body and blood that nourishes and brings forgiveness of sins, life and salvation as promised. Who’s the beggar now?
When we find it in our hearts to acknowledge our total dependence on God, our need for His redeeming grace in our lives, we will see with very different eyes the vision God has for all His children regardless of their station in life. In doing so, we will experience the joy of helping others as we move God’s world along as honest workers in service to Christ Jesus, toward a reward that is priceless and endless in heaven where every seat is the best in the house. Amen
Rev. David Brockhouse
“Best Seat in the House” Luke 14: 7-14 / Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019 / Mt. Olive Lutheran Church (LCMS)
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Mt. Olive is a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod