Writings: All Writings

Relishing the View from the Foot of the Table

Luke 14:8-11

Presented in chapel at Great Lakes Christian College

Author: John C. Nugent

03/04/08+ Share

This sermon encourages believers to heed Jesus' advice to accept whatever lowly position we may find ourselves in and to trust that it is God's intention and good pleaure to exalt us in his good timing. It also exposes the futility and dangers of jockeying for position, wasting our energy, and spoiling our relationships through self-promotion.

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Spoiling a Wonderful Opportunity

After five years of Bible College and three years of part-time ministry experience, I was ready to storm the world for Christ. Shortly after Beth and I arrived in Tennessee to attend seminary, I was hired as youth minister in a long-established 100-member graying church in a town of 5000. A majority of its members had been retired for over a decade. There were only a handful of what we called "young adults," that is, adults between the ages of 20 and 60. My youth group had only three kids in it, two of whom were sisters. This well-worn Church gave me a short list of simple responsibilities: teach these youth every Sunday morning and evening, plan special monthly events for older youth and younger children, run a VBS program each summer, give monthly reports at committee and board meetings, and sit on stage during Sunday morning worship so I could open the service in prayer and close it with announcements.

It was the perfect seminary ministry: enough responsibility to keep me serving, enough compensation to provide for my family, and enough time to continue my studies. But it wasn't enough for me. I felt insulted. As a Bible College graduate with above average experience I should be leading an important ministry with lots of youth, older youth, and a good share of adults, too. How demeaning it felt to work primarily with a few young kids and to serve as the Sr. Minister's Sunday morning liturgical lackey.

Though I accepted the job, I immediately began reshaping it into something more to my liking. After only a brief time, I had the audacity to propose a revamped job description to the elders. According to my proposal, I would no longer be called the "Youth Minister," but the "Associate Minister." My responsibilities would entail working one-third with young adults, one-third with older youth, and one-third with special events and Sunday morning responsibilities. I intended to resurrect this dying church by filling the gaping hole in their demographic and by engineering my way toward a large impressive youth group. I was determined to transform the menial job they handed me into a respectable ministry. Though not everyone was on board with my vision, there was just enough support for it to squeeze through. I was thrilled.

The next three years met with what appeared to be great success. Both the young adult ministry and youth group grew significantly, several of the young men I had been mentoring were now serving as deacons and even elders. Though things appeared to be going great, they soon took a turn for the worse. Not all of the young adults were content with a Bible study and special events targeting them and their children. They wanted a contemporary worship service and preaching that was directed to their generation. Though I tried my best to maintain a spirit of unity and encouraged the young adults to remain patient and content with the great progress we had made, several older members began to feel threatened. By the grace of God, it did not split, but many of the older leaders leaders grown weary of my "leadership."

Providentially, I was about to graduate from seminary and complete my four-year commitment to this church. Yet before our moving truck even left the driveway, the church board had already discontinued the position of Associate Minister and replaced me with a real Youth Minister—someone who was truly dedicated to youth and young children. Sadly, only a few years later, the last of the young adults finally gave up the fight and joined one of the larger contemporary churches in a town nearby. Echoing the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, I had built a ministry on the stubble of human pride, the work itself was consumed, and I barely managed to escape—as though through flames.

Unfortunately, I am not alone in this kind of experience. It seems that every month I find myself in conversation with another young minister who is struggling for acceptance and respectability in their first, second, and even third ministries. It is so common that one is tempted to consider it a rite of passage, something we all need to go through in order to adjust to the real world, and not just in church work. One friend of mine has seen it in social work, another in a non-for-profit organization, and still others in retail. It seems as if talented hard-working newbies in all professions want to be respected for their ability and accomplishments, and long to put their God-given potential immediately to use in the Church and world. But must we all bang our heads against the wall striving to promote ourselves in hopes that others will finally take us seriously? Jesus didn't seem to think so, and in Luke 14 he shares a parable that, if taken to heart, has power to liberate young and old alike from the debilitating bonds of self-advancement.

Jesus' Not So Conventional Wisdom

The scene was charged. It was Sabbath day and Jesus was reclining at the table of a prominent Jewish leader and sharing a fine meal with several Pharisees and other experts in Jewish Law. The gathering began as we might expect: Jesus healed someone, the self-proclaimed guardians of Sabbath objected, Jesus exposed their inconsistencies, and all were rendered speechless. The pastorally-sensitive among us would think that this was enough conflict for one meal and that Jesus should play nice for the rest of the afternoon and let that first lesson sink in. Not a chance. Jesus could not stop there because he loved these Jewish leaders and he deeply desired to deliver them from their self-imposed bondage. Surveying the room, he observed an awkward phenomenon common not only to first century Jewish banquets, but also to kindergarten birthday parties and college lunchroom politics: people jockeying for position and competing for seats of advantage and honor. So he shares a parable with them that is recorded in Luke 14:8-11:

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

It is tempting to reduce this teaching to good practical wisdom: those who wish to avoid possible shame and maximize their likelihood of being honored before others should sit at the foot of the table. After all, one can only move up from there. This is the kind of wisdom we see in Proverbs 25:6-7, which reads, "Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, 'Come up here,' than to be put lower in the presence of a noble."

Such advice is valuable and certainly has its place, but it would still leave the Pharisees in their bondage. It could be easily assimilated into a self-centered worldview and hijacked as yet another tool for personal advancement. That Jesus meant more than this is evident in verses 12-14 where he instructs those hosting banquets not to invite well-to-do guests who could repay them, but to recruit those who are lowly and unable to return the favor. Jesus' deeper intention is also evident at the end of this parable, in verse 11, where he supplies his underlying rationale saying, "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Yet it is not practical wisdom that all who exalt themselves are humbled or that those who humble themselves will be exalted. Ecclesiastes 7:15 acknowledges that "there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness" and "wicked people who prolong their life in their evil-doing." No, Jesus is not merely echoing conventional wisdom; he is making a faith statement, a kingdom proclamation. In appealing to the downfall of the exalted and the exaltation of the downtrodden, he is linking the practical advice of this parable to the wider theme that permeates God's self-revelation to humankind—the theme that the God of Israel has intervened decisively in world history to bring down the prideful and exalt the humble. This task began with the call of Abraham; it culminated in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension; and it will be completed when he returns. 

Scripture's Legacy of Exaltation and Humiliation

When we pay close attention to the story of this God and his dealings with humankind, we see that true humility is not simply the means to a self-centered end. We hear in Hannah's prayer (1 Sam 2), David's songs (1 Sam 22), and Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1) that Israel's God is one who raises the low and lowers the raised. We hear Jesus' brother James and the Apostle Peter both quote Proverbs 3 to emphasize that Israel's God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. We hear the prophet Isaiah in one place forecast a day when all the lofty are brought low (Isa 2:12-17) and in another place announce that Israel's most exalted God is pleased to dwell with the contrite and humble of Spirit (Isa 57:15). Isaiah thus makes it clear that the decisive question is not "Who will be made low?" since all are low before God. The decisive question is, "Who will embrace our lowly position or be disgraced for failing to do so?"

Scripture is packed with examples of such disgrace. God intentionally chose the number two son, Jacob, to be the child of promise precisely because he was number two and not number one. Yet Jacob tried to promote himself by manipulating his older brother out of his birthright and tricking his father, Isaac, into giving him the firstborn's blessing. Since Jacob elevated himself to number one status rather than accept God's preference for number two, God brought him low by subjecting him to excessive toil under his scheming Uncle Laban and by later bringing him to his knees before his estranged brother Esau. Having returned Jacob to his rightful status as the number two son, God was pleased to move forward with his plans to prosper Jacob.

King Nebuchadnezzar had a similar experience. He grew prideful due to the vastness of his Babylonian empire and lost sight of the Most High God who is sovereign over all kingdoms. So God drove him from society and forced him to live on all fours like an animal for an extended period of time. Only after he humbled himself and confessed God's sovereignty did God restore his dignity.

Yet God was not so patient with others. Nebuchadnezzar's son, Belshazzar, failed to learn from his father's example and was cut down at a young age for proudly partying with sacred vessels that were confiscated from God's temple in Jerusalem. Likewise, the priestly sons of Korah sought to elevate themselves to the status of Moses, their uncle, and Aaron, their father, only to be swallowed alive into the belly of the earth. Then, of course, there's vile Haman who exalted himself in Persia at the expense of the Jewish people only to be hanged on gallows that he had built for his nemesis Mordecai, the pious uncle of Esther.

These examples could be multiplied and their force is clear: Israel's God is no respecter of human pride, and it is his sovereign will to level the playing field. He intentionally creates Israel as his people to be lowly and of no account apart from him. He sends Jesus as a humble and modest king because the kingdom he brings is one in which the lowly are raised and the haughty brought low. Jesus teaches that the first are last and the last are first, that leaders serve from below not rule from above, and that the great in the kingdom are like children and servants. It's why Jesus washed the disciples' feet, why he spent so little time in Jerusalem where all the important decisions are made, and why the lowly and outcaste of society never stopped following him around. The kingdom Jesus brought, the kingdom for which Israel was waiting, was a kingdom in which self-promotion and jockeying for position have no meaningful place. It is a kingdom whose citizens are so preoccupied with tending to the interests of others that it does not dawn upon them to consider what they personally might stand to gain—for God has already gained for them more than their hearts could desire.

The Abiding Relevance of Jesus' Teaching and Example

But it all sounds so future. Certainly we agree that when Jesus returns to finalize the kingdom, God will humble his enemies and exalt his lowly followers. In that future day, it makes sense to put others first because we can be sure that they will be putting us first as well. But until then, don't we need a healthy dose of realism? At the end of the day, don't we all need to look out for ourselves since no one else will do it for us? It is one thing to sit at the foot of the table when the host knows you enough to invite you higher, but what if he or she does not know you very well? What if they'll never learn just how bright and talented you are as long as you remain at the table's foot where the meek and lowly recline in obscurity? Does not fairness require that the most qualified people deserve the highest posts? Should not those who put in the time reap the benefits? Do we not have a responsibility to let people know just how bright and qualified we are? Do they not have the responsibility to treat us accordingly? Certainly there must be some appropriate place for self-advancement!

The Apostle Paul did not think so. In Philippians 2 he says, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:3-11)."

Paul believed that even now, even before Christ returns, Christians should live in such a way as to put others first always. He believed it because he saw it in Christ. If anyone had cause to promote himself it was Christ. If anyone was qualified to occupy prominent religious and political posts in Jerusalem, if anyone was qualified to sit on the imperial throne in Rome, indeed, if anyone was qualified to rest comfortably in God's heavenly throne room it was Jesus—and he knew it. Yet he had absolutely no aspirations to promote himself to positions of honor. But why? Two reasons come to mind.

First, Jesus knew what God's kingdom is like and that his place was secure within it. He knew that God would bring low those who occupied powerful seats of which they were not worthy. He knew that in due time God would properly exalt the lowly who seek first his kingdom. He knew that without having to promote his own welfare his heavenly father would ensure that he is properly exalted.

Second, Jesus knew that the most significant contribution he could make on this earth was to extend God's kingdom to others. So rather than maneuver his way into public influence, he accepted lowness for our benefit and served his fellow Jews. He subjected himself to the insults and taunts of leaders who should have known better. He surrounded himself with an inconsistent group of Jewish misfits. He ate with the poor, the unclean, the unpopular, and the despised. He healed the ungrateful, taught the unresponsive, and served to the point of exhaustion. Since Jesus' place in God's kingdom was secure, he had nothing better to live for than to secure a place for others. That's why possessions and prestige meant nothing to him; all that mattered were his lost neighbors.

Should it be any different for Christ's followers? Unlike Christ, it is not ours to sit at God's right hand. Yet Colossians 3:1-4 is instructive: "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."

Thanks to Christ, our position too, is secure. Already we have been raised with Christ, and already he is seated at God's right hand interceding on our behalf. It is only a matter of time before Christ returns and we are revealed with him in glory. So in the meantime, we need not concern ourselves with prestige and possessions. In the meantime, like Christ, we can lower ourselves so that our neighbors may be exalted.

This was no mere theory for Paul; it dictated the costly shape of his own life. Listen to his testimony in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some."

Following Jesus, Paul sat at the foot of the table because he truly believed that others' interests were more important than his own. His position and our position has been secured by Christ, so we are all free to be all things to all people for the good of all others. We are free to promote the needs and honor of others ahead of our own, even those who don't deserve it, and we are confident that should God desire to elevate our status even now in this life, he will do so at his discretion. Yet such elevation is strictly optional, since our minds are set on things above and our glory will be fully revealed only when Christ himself is revealed. Truly secure in that reward, we would just assume that all honor in this life goes to others.

This is the mind of Christ and the example of his closest followers, and it is a tough teaching. But in its toughness, how liberating. How liberating to think of our neighbors as brothers and sisters to love and not competitors for limited resources and praise. How liberating to accept one's lot at work without constantly conspiring of ways to improve it. How liberating to know that our future is rooted more in what Christ has done for us than anything we can do for ourselves. But make no mistake about it, this is not liberation to laziness. Rather, we must work tirelessly wherever we are at, serving our neighbors with excellence, being good stewards of the resources God has given us, and submitting to our authorities rather than dreaming of ways to supplant them. Christ's followers did not replace worldly ambition with no ambition; they replaced it with kingdom ambition, and so must we.

Frankly, I cannot be sure what this means for you. For some it may mean we need to stop complaining about our work and start praying about how to use our lowly positions as strategic ministry posts. Perhaps others need to stop grumbling about our daily responsibilities and learn to trust the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Some of us may need to repent. We've made competing with siblings and peers our stock in trade and we need to invite Christ to overhaul our worldview and habits. Regardless of who we are, it means being faithful where we are at, wherever it may be, in confidence that God will reward our faithfulness and exalt us in his good time.

The Choice between Pride and Patience

As I was doing a few word studies in preparation for this sermon, I was fascinated to discover that Ecclesiastes 7:8 contrasts pride—not with humility, as I would have expected—but with patience. Similarly, Habakkuk 2:4 contrasts pride with steadfast or longsuffering faith. Together these verses remind us that the difference between the humble and the proud is not always the objects of their desire, but the grace to wait patiently for God's timing.

I was anything but patient in my first post-college ministry. In retrospect, I wish I would have gone about things much differently. I wish someone would have sat me down, told me how prideful I was being, and encouraged me to accept my job description as I received it. I wish I would have made faithful disciples of the few youth God had provided me, truly submitted to the elders and Sr. Minister who were placed over me in the Lord, prayed without ceasing that God would guide these leaders to take important steps to improve the church's witness and service, and gladly accepted whatever new opportunities and suggestions the leaders would pass along to me during my time there. In short, if I could "do it all again," I would like to think that I would strive to be a diligent and faithful steward of the resources and responsibilities that I received and that I would resist the temptation to covet what God had given to others and not to me.

My prayer for you today is that, with this little bit of encouragement from Luke's Gospel, you might find a way to avoid the lofty road most often traveled and, instead, choose the lowly road; that is, the narrow path of Jesus.

Closing Prayer

Exalted heavenly father, you know that I need this sermon as much as anyone in this room. So we call upon you together to give us the grace to see your wisdom, to accept that wisdom, and to live by it. Give us the strength to endure patiently when sitting at the foot of the table is painful and humiliating. Help us to embrace such positions for the strength that is in them—strength to serve our neighbors and to advance your kingdom. Thank you Lord for liberating us from the bondage of self-promotion. May we live out the freedom you offer so convincingly that the world may be drawn to you through us. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.