Preached October 16, 2011
St. Luke 14:1–11
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
You will recall that we have been discussing the human characteristics required in order to do God “true and laudable service.” We began with the most essential, love of God, then in order considered the graces of purity, singleness of heart, patience, and today, on the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, we consider the grace of humility. When we consider our own condition before Almighty God, there can be little doubt regarding our need for humility!
In fact, humility towards God is also the theme of the eleventh Sunday after Trinity, where the Propers involve both the attitude of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:1–11) and also the prayers of the Pharisee and publican (St. Luke 18:9-14). Today we have to deal with the more difficult topic of proper humility in dealing with other men; while poverty of spirit towards God is needed for the Kingdom of Heaven, meekness alone can inherit the earth. The Gospel reading for both Sundays ends with the same warning from the lips of Jesus: Luke 14:11 For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Before turning to the lessons for the day, I would like to direct your attention to the Collect for the Day, heard earlier:
Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is another of those unusual usages of the word “prevent,” meaning to go before, so we are asking that the Lord’s grace go both before and after us. We are asking to be surrounded by grace, that we may be protected from all sin and error. We cannot make this prayer without great humility because it recognizes our own vulnerability to sin from every side. Not only are susceptible to sin that creeps upon us unawares from behind, but we are unable to withstand sin that we meet face to face. We require the protection of God’s grace from all sin, because in our own strength we cannot stand alone.
We pray also that by God’s grace going before us, there will be opportunities for us to serve that might not have otherwise appeared. We pray that His grace will enable us to recognize these opportunities, to seize upon them and to carry them through to fruition. With the grace of God following behind us, we will not be allowed to fail in them, nor to neglect to finish them. In following us, the grace of God protects us from all the unseen enemies that await every Christian along the way. If these petitions be granted, we will join the Children of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt, guided by the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. Our whole Christian lives, both temporal and spiritual will be passed in all such good works as the Lord has prepared for us to walk in.
In our Epistle lesson for the day, St. Paul is writing to the Ephesians on the matter of getting along together. Note how he speaks to them: Ephesians 4:1-2 1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, 2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; He begins by reminding them of his own condition as a prisoner in Rome because he is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He then reminds them that they too, have accepted the call of Christ, and are therefore obligated to be worthy of that calling. He then lays out for them particular parts of that obligation that are relevant to the situation, the need for lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance. These are reminders addressed to a group of people who have let pride and self–importance come between them, reminders that this is destroying the body of Christ, and is behavior not allowed for among Christians. All of these things are problems that we face today in Christian parishes, so the words of St. Paul are just as directly applicable to us as they were to the Christians at Ephesus. We have to remember that the great God of the universe accepted us, just as we were, when we came to Him in baptism. We therefore have no grounds to claim any rights before Him or before anyone else. In the Church, we are all equal, unworthy sinners saved by the hand of a gracious God through the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. Since God has accepted us, we dare not be anything other than humble towards anyone else.
There is yet another reason why everyone of us must be humble; the unity of the Church requires it. Ephesians 4:3-6 3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. The unity of the Church is a matter of the highest priority. It is a matter of fact, not of possibility. Just as the fact Solomon could not divide the living child into two, to give a child to each of the two women claimants, likewise, the Church cannot be divided. But the true unity of the Church can only be realized in the bond of peace, just as in the Christian marriage between a man and a woman where there is forbearance and mutual love. Individual desires have to be sacrificed and mutual goals encouraged for the community to prosper. St. Paul lists seven signs of unity: (1) one body, (2) one Spirit, (3) one hope, (4) one Lord, (5) one faith, (6) one baptism, and (7) one God and Father over all in His dignity, through all by His providence, in all by His grace.
With all of this compelling testimony, how can we not subordinate our individual peculiarities and make whatever accommodations are required for unity?
We are all members of one mystical body, the Church, whose Head is Jesus Christ. All have had the same baptism in the Name of the most holy Trinity. We all await our call to return at death to Paradise and then to Heaven. We are all watched over by the same Heavenly Father, and helped by the same Holy Ghost. It is our duty to cultivate every possible grace of humility towards all others who are so united with us before God.
The principal teaching regarding humility in today’s Gospel lesson comes toward the end of the lesson. There is, however, a small lesson at the very beginning. Note how the lesson begins: Luke 14:1 And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him. The invitation from the chief Pharisee was not extended in good will. Rather the whole event was an attempt to entrap our Lord Jesus, to set Him up in a situation where He might be questioned in the hope that He might say something that could be used against Him. Even so, Jesus did not decline the invitation, but humbly accepted this malevolent invitation to a meal. We need to remember that Jesus never does anything by accident, but it was an act of humility for Jesus to accept this invitation extended in bad faith.
Then we have the appearance of the man with the dropsy, the miracle cure, and the exchange about whether such a cure is lawful on the Sabbath day. This feeds into the broader discussion of pulling oxen out of pits on the Sabbath day, a topic the men gathered do not want to discuss. The pride of the Pharisees is evident in their unwillingness to enter into the discussion with Jesus because they know that they are beaten before they begin and the result will be to receive words of correction for their behavior. Instead they simply refuse to talk, tacitly acknowledging that Jesus is correct, even though they have said nothing at all. It is this refusal to talk that leads Jesus to tell the parable of the seating of the wedding guests.
In the parable of the seating of the wedding guests, Jesus cautions that we are not to take the place of honor at the table lest someone more distinguished arrives and the host asks us to move to a position of less honor, thereby disgracing us before the whole company. Rather, He says, take a low position so that the host will come to you and tell you to more to a position of greater honor, and we will be exalted in the eyes of all who see this action. Now, this is much more than simply instructions for proper behavior at a wedding banquet. He is talking about how we are to get along in life. Anyone who is constantly putting himself forward (taking the most honored seat), will inevitably come up against the ambitions of other people of similar inclinations. This will lead to conflict and strife, and inevitably to some form of disgrace. Rather, if we simply do our work, without regard for our own status, (thus taking the lowest seat), society will reward us with our proper recognition for the quality of our work. Those who do better work will be more highly rewarded, while those who do work of less value will receive less recognition, but there is an overall equity in the end.
This does not mean that we should not seek to have a good reputation in the eyes of God and men for the value of our work, only that these are not things to be sought at great price. Christian humility is based on a recognition of our total unworthiness before God, a knowledge of ourselves, and the recognition that we are surrounded by others who surpass us in something and many who surpass us in all things. Only when we properly understand our own self-worth, lowly though it is, can we be bearable company for others. Humility, in which we compare ourselves with those who are better, may enable us to improve, but pride, in which we compare ourselves, with those less than ourselves, can only bring us down. As our Lord said at the end of the Gospel lesson, Luke 14:11 For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Surely it is evident that humility is a central feature of the Christian character. We cannot seek to impose our wills on others, thinking that we are acting as Christians. This is a grace that is not highly valued in modern America, and yet it is absolutely essential for our walk to Paradise.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.