J ESUS’S ADVICE for a wedding banquet bears a striking similarity to advice found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.
Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king,
or stand in the place of important people,
because it is better that he say to you,
“Come up here,”
than to be demoted before a ruler.
These verses are all about staying out of trouble when in the presence of the king: Hold your tongue, keep your nose clean, and don’t meddle. Good advice for those climbing the ladder of success in the king’s court. Keep a low profile. It’s better to be lifted up than put down.
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THE PROVERBS WISDOM and Jesus’s wisdom are similar. They are about status and pecking orders. Young folks face serious questions about status at school as groups are assigned, teams formed and friendships circle up. Adults understand that also. Power comes to those who keep the boss happy.
In Proverbs, the motive for humility is to achieve honor and avoid embarrassment. Humility and sacrifice are a means to an end — immediate and tangible rewards.
People’s faith is sometimes like that: “We are faithful Christians and because of that, Billy made quarterback and Andrea got a full scholarship.”
Or this: “I don’t understand God. We started coming to church, we give money, we volunteer. But our marriage is still rocky, our kids are still unruly, and we’re still in financial trouble.”
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FORTY YEARS AGO, a guy at church told me he had started tithing. Now tithing is giving 10% of your income to the church. He went on to say that as a result of tithing he had won the football pool at work. Maybe you’ve heard something like this, or said something similar. Biblical obedience and sacrifice result in lavish tangible rewards. But not in Christ. Humility, sacrifice are not ways to financial success and domestic harmony. They are obedience to God.
Jesus sees people jockeying for the best seats at dinner. It is a teachable moment about the kingdom. There was a wedding, Jesus says. Everyone wants to sit close to the bride and groom at the reception dinner. But if you sit in a reserved seat you may be asked to move. The head table is for the wedding party. Next table is for parents. Then a table for other relatives. Friends, co-workers, regular folks sit toward the back.
There’s just not much glory in what Jesus teaches. Humility and obedience fulfills God’s purpose but does not put a down payment on VIP seating on earth or in heaven. Obedience is its own reward. The Lord, our host, may come and move us to a more exalted place — and then again, maybe not. Perhaps the lesser seat is our permanent place.
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HAVING LEARNED that we are called on to live lives of humility and sacrificial service, to whom are we to be humble and who are we to serve?
Jesus is not really talking about wedding etiquette. Jesus is talking about how we treat one another and live with one another. God does not need our money or our time or our compassion. But people do. People around us need our money, they need our time, and they need our compassion.
Our identity as Christian people is in our connections with and our service to others.
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JESUS GOES ON to talk about having a dinner party and inviting people who can’t reciprocate. Don’t worry about the “A list.” Invite the “no-listers.”
Remember we serve humbly because of the commandment of God and not because the goodness of other people. Because part of humility and sacrifice is serving those who we don’t see as good or worthy.
When I let someone in line in traffic and they don’t acknowledge it with a smile or shake, for a moment I swear off ever letting someone else in line. We help people and they don’t seem to appreciate it. We all want praise for what we do.
So, why not just stop being helpful, sacrificial? Because we are called to compassion and sacrifice out of obedience to God and not for applause or gain.
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IDENTIFY TWO PEOPLE in your class, office or neighborhood or family who never get invited to anything. Who are they? Imagine asking them to your party or dinner. How would it change things? What would it mean to the person invited?
Jesus insists that in God’s eyes everyone is worthy of coming to the party, all are welcome to the table. The poor. The blind. The outsider. The immigrant. The sinner. The saint. The rich. The poor. The prisoner. The beggar. Folks we don’t like and folks we do like.
That is both good news for us and a challenge for us.