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Where to Sit?
(From the Gospel, Luke xiv.1ff,Trinity XVII)

"...they chose out the chief seats..."
"...thou begin with shame to take the lowest place..."
"Go and sit in the lowest place..."
"Friend, go up higher..."
"For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted"

Jesus warns us against self-exaltation, and counsels us to humility.

I. Taking the Chief Seat

Why might I be inclined to take the “chief seats”? It's the sort of thing I might do without thinking. Everything about the chief seat is better, from every possible perspective. On the other hand, the lowest seat, from every conceivable angle, is the least desirable.

Why in the world would I choose the worst option? Only wisdom can advise us to do that which isn't reflexive and automatic under the circumstances.

Of course, Jesus' hearers felt that they deserved the chief seats, perhaps by dint of reputation, or education, or standing in the community. They had probably been doing it for years, and the community perhaps expected nothing less of them. It was all part of a game that everyone played.

There certainly is nothing wrong with giving honor where honor is due. But for all of us, there is a very thin line between receiving whatever honor might be rightly due us, and the proud assumption of honors we feel we deserve and have merited. And some of us are powerful enough personalities and strong-willed enough to insist that we receive the honor due us, taking for granted that we will be given it, and that everyone will appropriately fall in line.

On the contrary, our self-regard should probably be in inverse proportion to our station in life.

But in the biblical scene in today's text, the Son of God Himself was present, the One to whom the whole universe will some day give allegiance. In such Company, self-exaltation is very unwise, indeed.

II. The Wisdom of Humbling Oneself

Why is humbling oneself the best and safest possible option, if perhaps the most difficult?

It goes without saying that the nearer one is to the floor, the easier the fall will be, if one must fall. We can all testify to this. Just watch how quickly a child recovers after he has tripped and sprawled face first on the ground, versus the near tragic nature of such a calamity for any one of us! I'm reminded of such old expressions: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”. The tabloids love such stories --a grand tumble into misery by some notable figure, especially a religious one. We look on such instances with a certain degree of unhealthy fascination, and mutter such self-assurances as,”Man, I'm glad I'm not in his shoes!”.

But Scripture assures us constantly that there is wisdom in cultivating an inner attitude that encourages us to be content with the lowest levels in life.

I'm reminded of Psalm 75:4-7 ("...exaltation comes neither from the east or west...").

Or I Pet. 5:6 ("Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God...").

Rom. 12:16 advises us similarly, and even counsels us to associate with the humble (or, be willing to associate with people of low position). This is safe company. I think of Bob Dylan's line, “When you ain't got nothin' you've got nothin' to lose”. There is comfort in this kind of fellowship. Wherever the atmosphere is free of pride and sophistication, a certain merriment and simplicity is able to prevail. I think we will find a far greater flavor of realism, of sincere affection, of ready acceptance, of an absence of judgmentalness, in such company. There are groups of people who know that they never will be able to achieve greatly in life, due to obvious circumstances: perhaps they have been seriously ill, or are bound by emotional and mental infirmity, or handicapped in some fashion, or have been sufficiently visited with tragedy and hardship that they can barely collect themselves enough just to get through the next day. This is a very special group, and perhaps constitutes the greater part of the living, and we are advised, if I understand Paul aright, to seek such company.

I am reminded by Jesus' words that it is better to humble myself than to have others, or the circumstances of life, humble me... far, far better. There is nothing more painful than to be “put in one's place”. It is a lesson learned with difficulty. All of us have been through what some call “the college of hard knocks”, having to be taught lessons from life the hard way, lessons we refused to accept from the mouths of others who might have been trying to save us some real discomfort. We all have had relatives, children, friends, who have been moving headlong in such directions, while all we can do is stand by and brace ourselves for the impact.

I find that I am like the proverbial “jack-in-the-box”, popping up over and over again, and having to be stuffed back down in my box by some heavy hand. I think that self-abasement is a lifelong discipline, never to cease as long as we are following Christ in this world. This does not have to be some medieval exercise in self-punishment and flagellation, and shouldn't prevent us from graciously receiving honors when they are offered us. But we are in such constant danger of promoting ourselves, especially secretly within our own hearts, that there is a very real sense that we must become our own adversaries, so to speak, facing off against that impulse every time it arises. I am comforted when I remember that even the great St. Paul received his own “thorn in the flesh” as a safeguard against too high an opinion of himself.

III. Handing the Praise to God

One sure-fire method in working with this tendency is to hand every accolade off to God as rapidly as we receive it. Don't hold on to it, gaze at it, frame it in gilt and place it prominently over the hearth, and dwell on it. No... hand it up to God immediately while acknowledging both to yourself and to Him that He is the One who deserves it, and the One responsible for it. This is an excellent safe-guard and a fine habit to cultivate.

The reward for patient humility are among the most wonderful of words, "Friend, go up higher...." i.e., “Since you've deliberately chosen the lowest place, it is safe now to move you upward. You will be far less inclined to view the elevation in terms of personal accomplishment, or as your just deserts, but as a gift bestowed upon you...”

I dare say that the throne of God will be surrounded in its first ranks not by the big lights: the well-known here, the successful, lauded names and personalities we're all familiar with, many of them even highly esteemed among Christian circles. No, I suspect those spots will be reserved for those who were virtually invisible on earth: the lowly but faithful, those ignored by others as insignificant; believers perhaps unlettered, unattractive, the very least likely, in other words, by external standards, to receive high honors, but esteemed nevertheless in Heaven's eyes. They labored without reward and recognition and yet continued to labor only out of love for Christ, and in hopes of bringing pleasure to Him alone. Yes, I think this will be the final disposition of things.

Jesus Himself is the principle example of patient humility. He not only refused to take the chief place to which He was obviously entitled as none other could be, but was actively, deliberately denied any recognition of Himself by those who should have known better. P'p. 2:5-11 ("Let this mind be in you...").

When we are no longer in these sinful bodies, we will finally be enabled to receive reward without the danger of self-aggrandizement. O happy day! In the meantime, we must accept the fact that God is an enemy to our pride, and will do all He can to defeat it, a campaign in which we are advised to be active and willing cooperators!

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Ed Kalish, Deacon

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