This morning we start a new series of sermons entitled The Cost of Discipleship, and we are to look at Luke 14.7-24 under the heading Two Banquets – where we left off this time last year. I have just two headings this morning. They are first, Humility and Ethics and secondly, Heaven and Worldliness. So, first:
Humility and Ethics
In Christian ethics, the deadliest of sins is pride, but its extent – its enormity – is understood more clearly when you consider its opposite: the great virtue of humility. That is Jesus' concern in verses 7-14, the first part of our passage this morning – humility. The root of pride is to deny God and put yourself in his place. Humility, by contrast, is to put God first and yourself last! That is so fundamental in Christian ethics. The prophet Micah famously summarized Old Testament ethics of what God requires of you, namely …
"…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6.8)
However, to define precisely pride and humility is quite hard. Much easier, as Jesus knew so well, was to teach by practical examples. That is exactly what he did,
"One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees…" (Luke 14.1)
And, verses 7-10:
"… he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, 'When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, 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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you.'"
So Jesus had noted earlier in the Pharisee's house an undignified scramble for seats. However, he saw this as an opportunity for some basic teaching on humility. He, therefore, paints a picture of a wedding reception – which in all cultures is usually quite formal. The gist of what he says is as follows: if you are not one of the close family circle or an extra special guest, it is foolish to go and sit down at the top table at a wedding. For you can, then, be told to sit lower down to give way for a special guest. So, start off at the bottom table. If you've misjudged things, and there is space at the top table, you can be invited to "move up higher". Jesus then spells out a fundamental principle regarding humility in verse 11:
"...everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
But what does 'exaltation' for the humble mean in practice? Answer: many things. Let me list just three. First, intellectually and spiritually, humility leads to God's guidance for belief and behaviour. Psalm 25.9 says:
"[God] leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way."
That happens when you are humble enough to realize that God's word in Jesus, and so in the Bible, is right. And you realize that your contrary desires or your contrary ideas are wrong and false. That is hugely to your advantage – to follow truth rather than error. Then as you read on in the Bible you discover humility is an essential part of Christian faith, for humbly recognizing that God is God and you are not, you realize your failures that need to be dealt with. You then can thank God that Christ died, amazingly, in your place for those failures. We are reminded of that at this Communion Service. So you trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and experience the new life that the Holy Spirit brings. And that means heaven and not hell – an eternal benefit as we will be seeing later.
Secondly, humility oils the wheels in human interaction socially. Humility in the Bible is the other side of the coin to 'submission'. That is a word so hated by some today, but, when understood properly, is so essential in personal relationships. We had it in our Epistle reading – 1 Peter 5.5:
"Likewise, you who are younger, be subject [or submissive] to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'"
Submission here applies to the generation gap. It probably is not only referring to submission to elders in the church but also children and young people to their parents. But note, there must, at the same time, be a mutual attitude of humility by both parties involved. Biblical submission must never be a one-way servitude. That is where, in the fallen world, things can be abusive and so wrong. For you read in 1 Peter 5.5 (listen carefully):
"Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another."
So parents are to be humble in terms of serving the best interests of their children as against their own, if necessary, and in other ways. Supremely, such submissive humility is seen in Jesus Christ. The Bible says, he "humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2.8). So in the light of Christ's humility you are told…
"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2.3-4).
Is that how you relate to other people in your family, at your work and in the Church? For that, actually, is the way to real human flourishing both for now and eternity.
Thirdly, and this is a mystery but it is true. Humility works for our good when things go wrong and we are humbled under, what the Bible calls, God's "mighty hand". That is when we humbly believe he is still in control. Let me read again, 1 Peter 5.6-7:
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you."
Who's going through a tough time this morning? Well, don't get bitter or angry. Rather, as Peter says, humbly trust God and "cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." It is hard to see it now, but somehow, sometime, good will come as you trust and obey God.
So three ways humility works: one, in our understanding of spiritual truth and realities; two, in human relationships; and, three, when life his hard. But, then, to drive the lesson of acting humbly home, Jesus turns away from the guests and directly addresses his host. And he says to this, seemingly rich, Pharisee :
"When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." (Luke 14.12-14)
Jesus is nothing if not blunt. He probably is not saying: "never again throw a top-drawer dinner or banquet." Rather, as the original has a present imperative, the meaning may well be: "don't keep on inviting only your family and rich friends to your do's; instead, put on a dinner from time to time for 'the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind'." Christ came for all. But he especially came "to proclaim good news to the poor" and "to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind" (Luke 4.18). In this, he not only fulfilled Old Testament prophets. He also shaped the concerns of the early Church and ever after.
In the 1st century, the Apostle Paul tells us that the other Apostles told him and Barnabas especially to "remember the poor" in their Apostolic work (Galatians 2.10). In subsequent centuries, Christians were known as those who, unlike their pagan contemporaries, cared for the poor and ill. And of course, Christians were hugely influential in the founding of modern medicine. I used to go to Edgware Parish Church, in North London in the 1960s. In 1967 our curate, George Hoffman, set up an organization called "The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund" (TEAR fund) for short. That is now one of the country's biggest Relief organizations, helping the poor and needy of the world. A few years ago we had a specific request from the Archbishop of Uganda, so remembering Christ's concern for the poor and sick, some here at Jesmond helped set up "Anglican International Development" (A.I.D.) But concern for the poor and needy is to be without self-interest. For, says Jesus, when they are given food (or anything else), they will not be able to repay you. However, Jesus then said, verse 14:
"you will be blessed … For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
What does that mean? Well, the answer comes as we consider our second heading:
Heaven and Worldliness
In one sense God's Kingdom and eternal life starts now. That is when you humbly submit to Jesus and confess him as Lord, believing that God raised him from the dead, leaving an empty tomb, and when, at the same time, the Holy Spirit helps you as you try to live a Godly life. However, there is going to be a wonderful fulfilment of all this, when Christ returns. Eternal life will then mean a new order of being. Yes, one day Jesus Christ is coming again. We don't know when, but we know that this time he is coming not to save but for judgment. And with his return will come our bodily Resurrection, if we have died, or there will be an amazing transformation, if we are still living at the time. So that "repayment 'at the resurrection of the just'" Jesus mentioned, refers to this time of judgment – a judgment made so clear in the Bible. And it is for everyone. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5.10 puts it like this:
"We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
The good news, however, as Jesus says is this:
"…whoever hears my [Jesus'] word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5.24)
That means that for the believer, the judgment in one sense has been brought forward into this life, so he or she is now justified (or just as if they had never sinned). Christ has borne their sin, suffering God's judgment for them. But note, that justification is only for true believers – believers that then have some evidence of new spiritual life. And believers, one day, will be rewarded not on account of, but according to, their service. That judgment day will reveal the truth – the truth about a person's faith. Is it genuine or all talk? Remember some of Jesus' closing words in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7.21)
So some, including someone at the Pharisees' dinner party, may be wrong over who they think will enter God's future kingdom. Look at Luke 14.15:
"When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, 'Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!'"
Remember, Jesus has just been talking about future rewards, or repayments, "at the resurrection of the just" – on Judgment Day. But the question is, who precisely are the "blessed"? For it is not everyone. To explain, Jesus told this fellow-guest the Parable of the Great Banquet,
"A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them. Please excuse me.' And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'" (Luke 14.16-24)
Time doesn't allow me to go through all that in detail. Yes, it can be interpreted in terms of world history – in terms of the Jews and Gentiles. Whether that is correct or not, we must not miss some vital general truths about God's future kingdom. There are a number in the parable – I've time for just two:
One, the future kingdom of God is likened (verse 14) to "...a great, banquet" to which God invites "many". So think of the future in heaven not just as a tiny band of faithful people, singing wispy songs and twanging harps. No! Think of something huge with billions of faithful people, experiencing something way beyond imagining. The Bible puts it like this:
"… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Corinthians 2.9)
Don't think of a little vicarage garden party (by the way, references in the Bible to "few" being saved, probably are referring just to the Jews during Jesus' earthly ministry). So think of those occasions when, we are told, "around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake are consumed." That happens at each of the Queen's three Royal Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace, and one at Holyrood Palace every summer. At each there are around 8,000 guests. So, one, heaven is great beyond imagining. But…
Two, Jesus is teaching that if you are not going to enjoy that great future banquet, you can't blame God. It is your own fault if you refuse the invitation. He invites you but, as in the parable, you may be too preoccupied with things in this life. The parable suggests it may be your property (a field), your work (oxen) or your family (your wife and children). Note - they are all good things in themselves. However, if 'worldliness' - attachment to worldly things - means you have no time for God but ignore him, inevitably you will not be fit for God's future. Who is in danger of such worldliness this morning? Who needs to heed that solemn warning in verse 24?
"I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet."
Years ago my wife, Joy, and I were invited to one of the Queen's Garden Parties. Did we then say, "Dear Queen, we are married, and we have children and they take up a lot of time. We can't come." No! we certainly didn't. So let me close with another invitation - Jesus' own invitation for time and eternity, so greater by far than any human invitation. It is often repeated at Holy Communion. Jesus simply says this:
"Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11.28)
May none of us refuse that invitation being too busy with this world. Rather, in faith, may we say - and some for the first time even:
"I am coming, Lord, because I 'labour and am heavy laden'; thank you for the invitation."