Saturday 9 February 2013

The lowest place (Luke 14:7-24)


“Boyfriends for hire to beat China’s wedding pressure,” reads the title of an article published on the BBC website this week, highlighting the pressure on single Chinese women to get married before they hit that dreaded age of thirty.

"I'm pretty old - I'm almost 30 - but I'm still single," explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China's northeast. "My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm not married. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone."[1]

The pressure to bring home a potential husband this Chinese New Year has prompted single women to turn to popular Internet site, Taobao (China’s version of eBay), where fake boyfriends are available “for rent.” It costs just $5 per hour to accompany the girl to dinner with her parents though you will have to pay an additional $8 if you want a kiss on the cheek.

Zhou Xiaopeng, a dating consultant in China explains, “In Chinese families's hard for children to say that they haven't found someone and are still looking.” Zhou tells the heartbreaking story of a father who once told her client “just to marry anyone.” “Even if you have to divorce later,” the father said, “at least it gives him somebody.”


It is tragic when an occasion that ought to be full of joy, full of love and full of good food gets turned into a pressure-cooker of expectation, misunderstanding and heartbreak. That’s the story behind this banquet that Jesus gets invited to.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.”
Luke 14:7-8

The closer you are to the top table, the more important you are as a guest. You get to see the bride and groom up close. You are served before everyone else. That’s true of wedding dinners. That’s true of Cambridge formal halls. A better seat means better food.

Jesus says, “Don’t sit at the VIP table.” Why? Because in verse 7, “he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour.” Even at a dinner party, there is a pecking order. It’s not just about the food. It’s who gets served their food first. Whether it’s at a wedding banquet, a company dinner, or your friend’s birthday party: where you sit and how much wine you are served says something about who you are.

But Jesus says, “Don’t take the place of honour for,” verse 8 reads, “a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.”

If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
Luke 14:9

The only opinion that matters is the host’s. Not yours. Not the other guests’. The host may have invited someone more important than you. The next thing you know, he is tapping on your shoulder and pointing you to the table next to the toilet. “Give this man your seat,” he says to you. You might not think he is that important but the host does. It’s his opinion that matters. This is his banquet.

So where should you sit? According to Jesus, you should take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, take the lowest place (literally, the last place - eschaton), so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Luke 14:10-11

So later on at dinner, at the queue for the roast duck, where should you be? The lowest place!

Now you guys are smart enough to know that Jesus when tells you to take the lowest place, he isn’t just talking about the buffet line. He is talking about our our status in society. He is talking about the workplace. He is saying that given the opportunity to choose a position for ourselves in the eyes of the world, don’t go for number one.

Now why on earth would anyone do that? So that the host can come up to you and say,”Friend, move up to a better place.”

I know that some of us hear that and think it’s a con. “Yeah right, so that’s why you Christians act all humble and polite. It’s just an act so that you can manipulate God into giving you a better spot in heaven.”

But I suspect that most of us here today, especially if we’re Chinese, will think this: “How naive! That’s not the way the world works. If you want to be successful, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t kid yourselves. There is no ‘host’ who will exalt the humble. There are just a lot of guests fighting for the same seat at the table.”

If that’s you, then I hope you realise that that was exactly how the guests were behaving around Jesus that day. They arranged themselves according to their relative status to one another (“I’m older so I should sit here.” “I brought the most food so I should sit here.”)

That is how we arrange ourselves at the dinner table. That’ is how we arrange ourselves in society. We grade ourselves against the curve: “I might not be the biggest success, but I’m certainly doing better than those losers over there, so I’m OK.”

Friends, isn’t that tiring? Having to compare yourself with your neighbour every day to make sure you’re doing OK? Don’t you wonder sometimes: Are we fooling ourselves? Isn’t there a more objective way to determine who we are and what we’re worth, without having to constantly check the number of likes on our Facebook page?

Hear me out on this. When Jesus says, “Take the lowest place,” he’s liberating us. He is saying that if you know God’s objective approval of you really are it would free you - from false expectations, from self-delusion.

A couple of weeks ago, we read in Galatians 6, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions, then he will be able to take pride in himself without comparing himself to somebody else.”

It is our identity. Jesus is talking about your identity as something you receive from God, not something you conceive through effort. So many of us work hard to establish our identity, to find our identity, to define our identity - in the workplace, in school, in our families. But for those of us who are in Christ, we receive our identity from him - holy, loved, accepted - not because of anything we did but because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross for us.

The Christian whose identity is in Jesus is someone who is confident of God’s approval, whatever the world thinks. He has nothing to prove. In fact, that’s the reason why it makes sense for the Christian to take the lowest place is because Jesus humbled himself to the lowest place. He humbled himself to death on the cross trusting in God the Father to exalt him.

Jesus says to the guests at the table, “Don’t forget there’s a host.” God is the kind of host who loves to walk up to the little guy and say, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Isn’t that amazing?

Did you know that about God? He isn’t looking for the proud, the successful and the impressive. He is always looking out for the humble and lowly. In the Old Testament, God is never ever called the God of the rich and famous. Again and again the bible calls him the God of the fatherless, the widow, the poor and the outcast. He is their God.

“Take the lowest place,” Jesus says to the guests, but then he turns and says something even more challenging to his host, “Invite the poorest guests.”

Invite the poor

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14

Jesus turns to the host and says, “Don’t just take your boss out to lunch or your clients out to a Michelin-star restaurant.” If you do, they might invite you back for drinks at the country club.

Instead organise a banquet for the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Not a potluck. Not McDonald’s. Put together a large-scale, big budget feast. Book a five-star hotel and fill the banquet room with the kinds of people who never, ever get invited to banquets; who are usually stopped at the door from entering banquets. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

Be honest now. How many of you read this and think: Jesus, you must be crazy!

I want you to imagine the mood in the room at this point. A few moments ago, Jesus embarrassed all the guests by calling them thick-skinned opportunists. Now he insults the host for being cheap. The host must be saying to himself, “That’s the last time I invite Jesus to my reunion dinner!” Everyone in the room would have either been offended or embarrassed.

And that is where verse 15 comes in.

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 14:15

Verse 15 is the guy in the back who lifts up his glass and shouts, “YAM SENG!” What is he doing? He is easing the tension. He’s doing everyone a favour by lightening the mood! This guy’s the joker in the class. He’s the life of the party.

And what he does is give the kind of toast that says “Amen!” to everything Jesus has just said, but gives a chance to everyone else to laugh the whole thing off. He says, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

“Aye, we hear you Jesus! One day we’ll all have a good laugh about it in heaven, eh?”

But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. Instead, Jesus tells them a second parable about the feast in the kingdom of God.

Everything is now ready

Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
Luke 14:16-21

Notice, who does the master want to be brought into his banquet? The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Who was it again that Jesus tells the host to invite to his banquet back in verse 13? The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Notice the connection.

But the master doesn’t stop there - with just the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Luke 14:22-24

Why does Jesus tell this parable? Sometimes you hear this parable told as a way of saying, “Look how wonderful heaven is going to be. It’s going to be like that scene in Harry Potter, in the Great Hall with all sorts of yummy food and desserts. Heaven is going to be one great big banquet.”

Yet notice that there is not a single description of the food or decorations. Why does Jesus tell this parable? Not to teach us about food but to teach us about the host and his guests.

There are two sorts of guests, Jesus explains. First, there are the VIP’s. The VIP's get exclusive invitations. In fact, on the day of the banquet, the VIP's are sent reminders yet not a single VIP turns up at the banquet. The food is ready, the hall is laid out yet every seat is empty.

So the man sends out his servants with this message, “Come, everything is ready.” One by one, they all give their excuses. One’s bought a field. Another’s bought five oxen. Yet another’s gotten married. Please excuse me.

That’s the first group of guests, the VIP’s. You don’t need to be professor in biblical languages to work out that Jesus is referring to VIP's at his dinner party - the religious leaders. But here is the big surprise, Jesus is saying to the VIP’s, “What makes you think you’re in the kingdom? Because you got the invitation? Have you RSVP’ed?”

The VIP's just assumed they would be in the kingdom. That’s what the guy meant when he lifted up his glass to toast, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” He was assuming that everyone of his friends would get in. More than that, he was assuming that heaven was something far into the future.

In response, Jesus tells them a parable about heaven, whereby the invitation card to heaven says, “Come. Everything is now ready.” Did you notice that little word now? What is the invitation card telling us? Heaven is open now. The banquet is ready now. You need to RSVP now.

You see, that’s what makes those excuses so damning. It is one thing to be buying property, looking after your business and going on honeymoon with your wife - those are all good and godly things. But when you say to God, “Sorry, I’ll worry about heaven tomorrow. Today I want to concentrate on living my life for me,” what are you doing? You are presuming upon your salvation. You are taking God's offer of salvation for granted.

In fact, don’t these excuses sound familiar? Haven’t you used them recently? “Sorry Ma, got a lot going on in the office, I can’t come back for dinner tonight.” “Sorry Pa, can’t make it back for New Year this year, have to spend time with my own family.” We give good excuses, valid reasons, all the while covering up the fact that in our hearts, what we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to come home. I can’t stand being home.” We do that to our parents. We do same thing to our heavenly Father.

In the end the master says, “Not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” It’s a wake-up call to those of us who think of ourselves as VIP’s. Who have received this invitation again and again only to reply, “Sorry. Come back another day.”

The humble host

But there’s a second group of guests - the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Who is he talking about? Duh! The poor, crippled, blind and lame, of course. But remember what Jesus said back in verse 14 - the reason why these are the guests that ought to be ones invited to the banquet - These are the guests who can’t possibly pay back the host.

Go further back to what Jesus said about taking the lowest place, he is telling us to recognise who we are before a holy God. We don’t deserve to be in his presence but because of his grace and for the sake of his own glory, he calls us in and sets a place for us at his table.

An important way we do this each week is by confessing our sins before God; coming before him in prayer acknowledging all the ways we have rebelled against him and ignored him as God. We do this not to make ourselves feel lousy about ourselves. Not a kind of therapy. But rather, we Christians do this because we have heard that invitation in God’s word to come as we are, in our sins, and be cleansed and transformed through Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel.

The gospel is not for good people, it’s for sinful people. The gospel is not for the powerful but the powerless. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ though he was rich became poor for our sake so that we through his poverty might become rich. On the cross, he paid the penalty of our sin, taking our death, and in exchange, gave us forgiveness, righteousness and peace.

The way we do this is not by looking to ourselves, or even by comparing ourselves to our neighbour, but only by looking to the host of the banquet. You see, when Jesus did finally host a banquet for his disciples on the night he was betrayed, he took the lowest place by washing their feet as their servant. Furthermore, he took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body.” He gave them the cup, saying, “This is my blood,” in effect explaining how his sacrifice would become the basis of their feast in heaven.

That’s why the reunion dinner that Jesus organises is so different from the ones we are used to at Chinese New Year where we are afraid of disappointing our parents or concerned about putting on an act before the other guests at the table. At Jesus' reunion dinner, everyone at this table is messed up. Everyone is a sinner. And though some of us approach this table trembling and fearful of what God might say or do to us, we soon hear his tender voice saying to us, “You silly thing, I know all you have done and I have already forgiven you at the cross. Come home, my son. Come home, my daughter.”

The lowest place is where we see who we really are as sinful human beings, but it is also there that we see who Jesus is as our gracious loving Saviour. Humble yourselves, look to God our Father and in due time, trust that he will lift you up.

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. 
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. 
But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. 

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us.
(1662 Book of Common Prayer)


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