Rules at a Dinner Party
When I first became a Christian, I believed (and was taught) that Jesus died on the cross to open the door to salvation for me; but that after he did that, it was all up to me to make the right decisions, to love Jesus, and to obey him faithfully enough to get saved and to stay saved. I believed this for a long time, and was surrounded by people who believed it. And one of the common traits of folks who believe this is a kind of frustration with people who aren’t Christians, or who aren’t faithful Christians. You know what you’re supposed to do! Just do it!
Then, about twelve years ago, I heard John Piper preach a sermon on Romans 9. And it completely destroyed me. Over the course of about two weeks, I listened to hours and hours of sermons, read everything I could get my hands on, and did a complete one-eighty to adopt Reformed theology: the belief that God is absolutely sovereign over every aspect of his creation, including the salvation of his children.
But here too I made a discovery: this belief, which should have sparked in me a kind of humility I had never known—because I did nothing to save myself, and couldn’t if I wanted to—actually had the opposite effect. Because I could so clearly see this taught in the Bible, I just couldn’t fathom these morons who could read their Bible and see anything else.
Here’s the point: every conviction, every theological position, every deeply held belief, will inevitably reveal bottomless wells of pride in ourselves, unless God does something to stop it.
Our text today takes place at a single dinner party. And although they may be separated by different headings in your Bibles, they do indeed go together.
Jesus is invited to a dinner party which takes place at the home of “a ruler of the Pharisees.” And we see in v. 1 that when he goes to this Pharisee’s house for dinner, “they were watching him carefully.” So you know this is no innocent, friendly party. These guys are trying to trap Jesus into saying something which they can use against him, to kill him.
And Jesus is going to do what he always does—he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity he has here, to teach those in attendance four essential rules for dealing with other people. And the further he goes, the more we see that his rules for our relationships aren’t really about our relationships at all.
Rule 1: Treat Others As You Would Treat Your Kids (v. 1-6).
1 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.
The man who came in probably had some kind of edema, in which excess fluid gathers in different parts of the body. This is the last time we see Jesus heal someone on the Sabbath. This time around, we don’t see any of the drama we saw the previous times. It’s a brief encounter, meant to introduce what’s coming.
Rather than seeing the Pharisees make a show of being offended at the idea that Jesus would heal someone on the Sabbath, he asks a simple question.
3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they remained silent.
It was a brilliant move. If they say yes, then they contradict what they’ve said before. If they say no, then they risk seeming heartless and uncaring—which had already happened several times with this man.
So they say nothing, and Jesus does what we know he’ll do. V. 4b:
Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6 And they could not reply to these things.
In other words, there is no good reason to consider this poor man as any less important than their own children—and certainly not less important than one of their animals, whom they nevertheless cared for. He was no less worthy or valuable, no less human, than anyone.
So they could say nothing.
Rule 2: Never Take the Best Seat at the Table (v. 7-11).
Now apparently at this point, they all get ready to eat. And some people sit down at the “places of honor.” Imagine you’re eating with a celebrity, someone you admire greatly, and there are lots of people invited. You’re going to want to get as close to that person as possible.
Same thing here. Whether they want to be close to Jesus, or to the master of the house, we don’t know; but they are choosing for themselves the places of honor. So Jesus addresses these people, who were invited to the dinner party.
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 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. 10 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 honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is one of the more well-known parables of Christ, and its meaning is quite plain. But no matter how clear its meaning is, it remains one of the hardest parables to actually put into practice, because it drives us to something which will be a struggle to all of us: humility.
All of us, naturally, are prideful people. Pride manifests itself in two general ways: arrogance (the “I’m awesome and you’re all losers” mentality) and selfishness (the mentality which thinks the world I live in revolves around me). Every single one of us will struggle with both, in some way or another.
You may not be the type of person who thinks much of yourself. You may actually have pretty low self esteem. But every one of us knows what it’s like to have an opinion about something, to be 100% sure we are right, and to struggle to consider any other possibility. We all know what it’s like to dig in when we should be listening. That’s pride.
And what’s perhaps even more predominant is the “it’s all about me” mentality. Because we are individual human beings who have individual human minds, all of us see the world from our own perspective. We have our own likes, our own fears, our own desires, and whether we want to or not, our natural mode of operation is to build our lives around the things that are important to us. That’s just part of what it means to be human.
But all too often, that aspect of our nature begins to seep out of us in ways that are unhealthy. Probably the easiest way to see it in our day and culture is in social media. Social media is uniquely engineered to feed our selfish nature, because it is almost always me, posting about me.
And it’s uniquely engineered to feed our arrogance, too—even if we actually have low self-esteem. Because we always post things designed to make other people see us the way we want to be seen. We take the places of honor, even if it’s only in our own minds.
Here’s the point: we all struggle with this. We all struggle with wanting everything to be for us. We all struggle with wanting the place of honor, with getting what we want, with seeing ourselves as more than we are, and wanting other people to see us the same way. And we’ll use all kinds of very subtle means to get there.
So what is the solution Jesus gives us?
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
It’s amazing to me that in this teaching, Jesus tells us not to exalt ourselves, but to humble ourselves; and the reward he holds forward for us is that if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted. The desire to be exalted is a natural human desire—but there is a right, holy way to seek it.
Jesus says that the best way to seek it is to stop seeking it, but to give it to others. And he’s not just talking about high-profile situations in which lots of people will see what it is we’re doing. We have the opportunity to do this every single day.
A guy won’t let up, and wears his girlfriend down so she’ll sleep with him, because he wants the pleasure of sexual release.
Humility would have him make every effort to protect his girlfriend from sexual temptation, because his own pleasure is far less important than her holiness.
A girl will gossip, speaking poorly of her sister in Christ, because she wants to feel better about herself in comparison.
Humility would have her reach out to this sister and ask how she can pray for her, because no one is above the need for brotherly (or sisterly) love.
A guy will talk to his buddies about a girl likes, putting on macho airs to make it sound like she likes him too, because he wants his buddies to be impressed that a girl like her would be into him.
Humility would have him talk to the girl about his feelings for her, because she never asked to be a part of that conversation, and might not feel the same way. (And might be devastated to know that guys were talking about her in this way.)
A father will lash out as his children, because he wants just five minutes of silence.
Humility would have him show his kids what godly patience looks like, because he has received that same patience and grace from Christ.
A woman will pass by a homeless mother on the road without looking, because she wants to avoid the uncomfortable exchange that might ensue.
Humility would have her stop and speak to this mother, because it is only by God’s grace that she hasn’t found herself in that situation with her own kids.
In every situation, humility would have us act in ways which are counterintuitive, and which will definitely cost us something in the short run. But even if no one else notices that sacrifice, God does, and promises to exalt us in the proper time (more on that later).
Rule 3: Be Good to People Who Can Do Nothing for You (v. 12-14).
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Now it’s important to see that Jesus isn’t talking about payment for services here. He’s talking about the kind of sharing mentality that often happens in a community. I lend you my wrench, and I’m happy to do it, because I know that you won’t be able to refuse if I ever need to borrow something from you. We get a coffee, and I pay for yours, and what do you say? “I’ll get it next time.”
Now I don’t think Jesus is being absolute in his restriction here: I don’t think he’s saying we can’t invite our friends or brothers to dinner. But the test of our metal is the way we act towards those who can do absolutely nothing for us in return.
Look at the groups he mentions in v. 13. The poor; the crippled; the lame; the blind. Those who can’t repay financially, and whose other contributions would have been extremely limited at the time. Jesus says, “When you give a feast, invite these people—” v. 14: “and you will be blessed, BECAUSE they cannot repay you.”
What kind of sense does that make? Why would their inability to repay mean blessing for us?
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
Now this is incredible. Even if God paid zero attention to the things we did for those who can do nothing for us, we would still be rewarded beyond all measure for what Jesus did for us. And yet he still promises that the good we do for others, God will give back to us, beyond what we deserve. This is the simple and extravagant goodness of our God.
And here’s where we start to see where Jesus is going with all this. The idea that we would be repaid by God for any good we do to others is just laughable—every good thing we have or do, every good thought or motive or action, comes from him. God rewards us for what he gave us.
Realizing that fact changes the way we see the rewards he promises us. It makes us realize that these rewards are less about us, and more about him. That any reward he promises is designed to make us marvel at his goodness, not ours.
Which leads us to the fourth rule.
Rule 4: Remember It’s His Banquet (v. 15-24).
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!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 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.’ 18 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 have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 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.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 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. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’ ”
God invites us all to a banquet. This is not metaphorical. Revelation 19 speaks of the marriage supper of the lamb, that day when all the saints—all those who have faith in Christ—will be gathered together and made perfect, and live forever in infinite joy with Jesus. John writes in Revelation 19.6-9:
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
The call to salvation is an invitation to a feast. The parable Jesus tells here is a very apt one. God calls all people to come to him and be saved through faith in Christ. He made that call first to the people of Israel: Jesus was born in Israel, and he taught there. The first people to hear the message of his kingdom, to hear the call to come to him, were his people.
But, as we see in the parable, when the time came, and Jesus invited them to come on behalf of his Father, the Master (Jesus is the servant here), his people found any number of excuses as to why they couldn’t come. One guy had to tend to his new field. Another guy needed to tend to his livestock. Another guy had to tend to his new bride.
So what does the master do? He tells his servant to go to those people we saw in v. 12-14: those who couldn’t repay. He invites the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. And they come.
But there’s still more room.
So the master tells the servant to go out of the city—to go invite those who have no earthly business being there—and to have them come in as well.
Once again: Jesus levels the playing field. The people to whom he is speaking during this dinner party—these Pharisees and lawyers and other people who of high society of rubbed shoulders in them—found their identity in the fact that they belonged to God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. And this identity gave way to pride: pride that they were good Israelites, who observed the law, who did things the way they should be done, who were clean before God, who were respectable.
Ever since the beginning of this dinner party, Jesus has been subtly chipping away at this pride.
To the lawyers and the Pharisees (v. 1-6), he says, the sick are welcome at my table, and will be healed if they come.
To those invited to the dinner party (v. 7-11), he says, don’t seek the places of honor, but if you want to be truly exalted, humble yourselves.
To the master of the house (v. 12-14), he says, when you give a dinner, invite those people who can give nothing back to you.
And to the man who says, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,” he responds, “Yes, but how can you be sure you’ll be there?”
It’s the final, ultimate blow to their pride, because Jesus places before them only two choices: either you are one of the “respectable” ones, who find excuses and miss out on the banquet; or you are one of the needy who were let in late. There is no third option.
Those Israelites for whom their heritage was everything—that was their excuse for not following Christ. They counted on their belonging to a certain group to get in good with God, so they didn’t think they needed a Savior. So they found themselves excluded from the very promises they prided themselves in.
Jesus says in order to be present at this banquet, you have to realize you’re one of the needy. You’re one of the sick. You need a Savior.
You see, the people Jesus has been teaching them to accept, and to serve, and to welcome, are the very people they had to be if they wanted to eat bread in the kingdom of God.
Which is better? To keep your pride, and miss out on the feast? Or to realize just how needy and sick you are, and enjoy eternity with Christ?
Over the course of this dinner party, Jesus chips away at our pride, to make us see that none of this is about us.
What does he say in v. 23?
‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’ ”
This is God’s banquet. I was not invited because I’m one of the “good ones.” I was invited because I need him, and he wants to fill his house with people who know they need him, and who will be amazed and grateful when he gives them this amazing banquet to taste.
It’s all about him. His goodness. his gifts. His grace toward undeserving sinners.
the pride of excuses
Now that’s a lot of material to cover in a short time, so let’s take a step back for a minute.
The overarching theme of this whole dinner is obviously humility: showing honor to others, despite the cost to our own pride. But I hope you see that the humility he’s talking about here is far deeper than just the way we deal with our social interactions, than just the way we treat other people. It’s about my relationship with him, and whether or not I’m truly counting on him for everything I need. (The way I treat others is merely symptomatic.)
Our son Jack is six years old (six-and-a-half, he says—that’s important). He’s got a lot of energy (many of you here have been worn out by him before), and we don’t tell him this, but he’s a really smart kid. He’s the kind of annoying kid who’s just naturally good at most everything he tries to do (I was not that kind of kid). So he’s in the phase right now where he’s starting to notice that, and when he talks about a game or an activity or a subject at school, the first words out of his mouth are almost always, “I’m really good at this.”
It’s not easy to teach humility to a kid who’s good at just about everything he tries. But the Bible gives us the ultimate tool to do it in the person of Christ himself.
When we talk to Jack about what it means to be humble, we always say the same thing. Jesus is the Son of God—the Creator and Savior and Sustainer of the world. No one has ever been more deserving of honor than he is. But he didn’t go looking for that honor, did he? No—at every step of his life on earth, he did exactly what he teaches us to do here.
He treated others the way we would treat our own children.
He never sought the best seat at the table, but sat with the lowly and the poor.
He consistently and faithfully loved people who could do absolutely nothing for him.
He made a way for those of us who had no reason being invited to God’s table might be invited anyway. And that act—the act which granted those of us outside of Israel the opportunity to be reconciled to God—was the ultimate act of humility.
Paul says in Philippians 2.8-11 that Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And because of his humble sacrifice, God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
When we look at Christ’s life and death and resurrection, and all that we have in God because of what he did for us, it no longer makes any kind of rational sense to count on anything else. It makes no sense to boast in anything else. It no longer makes any sense to seek the place of honor, because we’ve already got it. It no longer makes any sense to seek anything for ourselves, because we already have everything in him.
So in light of these truths, although this text is long, it can be boiled down to one essential question: What are you counting on?
A lot of people don’t know Christ, and don’t know the Bible. So they legitimately don’t know what God expects of them.
That’s not the case for many of you this morning. Many of you here are well aware of what the Bible calls you to do on a day-to-day basis. And many of you still don’t do it.
But please understand this (and this goes both for believers and unbelievers): the excuses you make for not obeying betray the pride in you, because they show you what you’re actually counting on.
The people who were invited to the banquet, and who found excuses, were all counting on the fact that whatever they had going on, whatever they wanted to do, was more important than doing what the master invited them to do.
Whether you realize it or not, if you’re making excuses for not doing what he calls you to do, then necessarily, you’re counting on something other than Christ.
At best, you’re counting on the idea that your plans for your life are better than his plans for you. At worst, you’re counting on the idea that the things in which you find your identity and worth are more important than the life and sacrifice of Christ, which gave you a new identity, and true worth.
So you make excuses for why this commandment is too hard to follow, or why God is too strict in this situation, or why you’ll do this when the time is right. You don’t want to lose friends, you don’t want to lose money, you don’t want to lose your good reputation…
But those who count on Christ for their salvation will also count on Christ for the consequences of obeying him. If you’re counting on Christ for your salvation, then you’ll also count on him to get you through when your friends reject you; you’ll count on him to sustain you when resisting temptation is painful; you’ll count on him to assure for you an identity and worth that don’t depend on what others may think of you.
So if you’re refusing to come when he calls, and to do what he says to do, you have to ask yourself: what are you counting on? Are you counting on God’s leniency? “He’ll forgive me tomorrow, so I can do what I want today…” Even if Paul told us that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Romans 2.4). Are you counting on your own ability to do the right thing tomorrow? Didn’t you say the same thing yesterday? Has your resolution to do better tomorrow changed anything for you today?
The only thing we can count on—that won’t let us down—is him. There is nothing we can contribute to what we have in him.
And when we see that, when we truly realize that none of this is about us, but about him, then we’re freed to finally live our lives as if that were really true. We’re finally free to give others the place of honor—and we’ll want to, because we’ll no longer need it. We have all the honor, all the attention, all the good reputation, all the reward, that we could ever need or want in him.
So knowing what Jesus Christ has done for you, knowing how he humbled himself, do what he tells you to do.
Treat others as you’d treat your own children.
Never take the best seat at the table.
Be good to people who can do nothing for you.
And do it all because you remember that this banquet you’ve been invited to is his banquet, not yours. It’s not about you, and you don’t need it to be.
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.