Called to Be Humble
Luke 14:1, 7–14
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Identify the marks of humility and lack of humility in today’s text.
2. Paraphrase Jesus’ illustration of the banquet for the twenty-first century.
3. Make a plan to meet a need without expectation of repayment.
How to Say It
quid pro quo. kwid-pro-KWO.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Feb. 11—Prayer of Humility (Psalm 25:1–10)
Tuesday, Feb. 12—Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1–6)
Wednesday, Feb. 13—Disgraced at a Banquet (Luke 14:7–9)
Thursday, Feb. 14—Exalted Though Humble (Luke 14:10, 11)
Friday, Feb. 15—The Guest List (Luke 14:12–14)
Saturday, Feb. 16—A Life of Humility (Ephesians 3:1–10)
Sunday, Feb. 17—Tending the Flock with Humility (1 Peter 5:1–5)
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Why Teach This Lesson?
If we get the wrong idea of what humility is, think of what could happen. We may end up in a state of self-debasement, putting ourselves down. We may end up walking around with our eyes to the ground, refusing to look up. Believers need to know that Christian humility is simply faithful obedience to the Word and Spirit of God. It is being willing to obey God fully no matter what the cost. It is following God’s Word and will wherever that may lead as we give him the credit. The Lord Jesus Christ fully obeyed God, even to the point of going to the cross. Through Christ’s humble obedience, salvation came to the world.
Believers who grasp the full significance of humility will obey the Lord faithfully in every area of their lives. This brings about the will of God in the world and builds the kingdom of God. Today’s lesson offers us help on this very issue.
A. Awarding Ourselves
Across the street from my office is a small business that started as a trophy shop. For years it supplied the community with bowling statuettes, trophies for Little League, and engraved paraphernalia for sports tournaments.
Recently, though, it has become an awards business, supplying companies with plaques, engraved paperweights, and other gear to be used as motivational tools for employees. This part of the business is based on the belief that ongoing praise for employee performance will result in higher levels of sales, service, and profits.
That this approach is often effective serves as a commentary on our world today. We have become a society that craves recognition and praise. We value being honored. This is not new or unusual. What is sad, though, is that this overshadows the satisfaction that comes from humble service to others.
One can rarely surf the channels of cable television these days without encountering some type of awards show. Awards are given by academies. Honors are bestowed by virtue of the people’s choice. The voting is often controversial, and this just adds to the appeal of the show. Some wags think that we’ll eventually see The Awards Show Channel, where those who like this type of programming will be able to watch it continually!
Our fascination with watching others receive awards is related to another strong trend in today’s world: rewarding ourselves. One commercial for a builder of expensive houses says that we should purchase one of their homes “because life has its rewards.” It is the oldest marketing trick in the book: getting us to believe that we deserve to be rewarded (or to reward ourselves).
Should Christians participate in this practice of self-indulgent rewarding? If we do good things and end up being recognized and honored, isn’t that a positive thing? Are we less than whole if we are not praised? Today’s text reveals the teachings of Jesus on this subject.
B. Lesson Background: Jesus’ “Reputation”
Luke 14 is set within a period of time that some call “the later Perean ministry” of Jesus. Luke 13:22–19:28 is the most comprehensive of the four Gospel accounts in documenting this period of time. In Luke 14, Jesus stopped for Sabbath-day dinner at the home of an unnamed Pharisee, an important religious leader in his community. As we read the chapter, we realize that this was not a simple matter of hospitality. The Pharisee and his comrades were testing Jesus.
Two years earlier, Jesus had challenged the Pharisees on two important points. First, he had been willing to share meals with people the Pharisees saw as unacceptable (see Luke 5:30). Second, Jesus had shown that laws regarding the keeping of Sabbath were not to be understood absolutely (see Luke 6:2). More recently, Jesus had denounced the practices of the Pharisees and other religious leaders in no uncertain terms (Luke 11:37–52).
As a result, the Pharisees began “to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54). The Pharisees had labeled him as a Sabbath-breaker, one who followed the Jewish law in a careless, casual manner (see Luke 13:14). In short, they saw Jesus as one who ran with a bad crowd and had no respect for the law.
C. Lesson Background: Symbol and Shame
Two hallmarks of the ancient world are important for putting today’s lesson in context. The first is the symbolic power of table fellowship. Today we might sit in a fast-food restaurant and “share” a meal with anyone who sits nearby. We don’t know of their character, and we don’t care. But for the Jews of Jesus’ day, to eat with someone signified tacit approval of that person and his or her behavior.
By contrast, to refuse to eat with someone was a sign of disapproval and rejection of that person. Jesus’ willingness to eat with some disreputable characters was both a source of consternation for the Pharisees and a sign of his acceptance of those people (see Luke 15:1-2; 19:7).
Second, people in the ancient world were very mindful of the concept of shame. Today it is hard to find a person concerned about shame. The media parades shameless public leaders and celebrities in front of us daily. Many behaviors once thought shameful now pass as normal. The recognition received for outrageous public behavior is seen as a positive thing—“a good career move”—for some celebrities.
But in the tight-knit communities of Jesus’ day, to be shamed had long-term consequences. If a shameful act were exposed, the shame would fall upon the entire family and perhaps upon an entire village (compare Matthew 1:19; Luke 13:17). To act purposely in a shameful manner was unthinkable. Avoidance of shame was every bit as strong a motivation as the quest for honor. This understanding of shame and honor is a key to understanding Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet.
I. Humility Through Watching Jesus (Luke 14:1)
1. One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
The exact location of the event that is about to unfold is not specified. All we know for sure is that it occurs at the home of a prominent Pharisee, probably a well-known leader and teacher (compare Luke 11:37). The Pharisees were a “lay” movement, meaning they all had other professions and did not make their living from being Pharisees. Some lived in small, out-of-the-way places.
Jesus has been invited to this man’s house on the Sabbath. This is a banquet-style meal with many guests. Luke lets the reader know that this meal is not intended to honor Jesus or to hear him teach. It is a contrived situation where the Pharisees watch Jesus closely. In other words, they are testing him in order to find a flaw. This may be “payback” for the recent event where they had been shamed by Jesus (Luke 13:17 or John 10:22–39). But instead of finding an inconsistency in Jesus’ words and actions, they are about to learn a powerful lesson in humility.
What Do You Think?
In what ways are people watching us as Christians? Why are they watching? How do you conduct yourself with these realizations in mind?
II. Humility Through Choice (Luke 14:7–11)
A. Seeking Honor (vv. 7–9)
7. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:
To choose the places of honor speaks to the strict traditional codes when it comes to seating at such a banquet. The head of the household (in this case the prominent Pharisee of v. 1) is the host; he takes a seat at the center of the head table. The place of greatest honor is the seat that is at the host’s right hand. The honor associated with other seats is in relationship to a seat’s distance from the host. This is partly based on the assumption that the most important conversations and the best food are found in proximity to the host.
The Jews of Jesus’ day do not really sit in chairs at a table as we do. They instead recline on low benches or couches around a table. They use their left arms to prop themselves up, thus freeing their right hands to take food from common bowls or platters. The places of least honor may not be around the table at all, but involve sitting on the floor.
The most foundational meaning of the word parable is “comparison.” Here, Jesus does not tell a story-parable, but gives a comparison between the jockeying for position around the table and God’s call in people’s lives for humility in actions and service.
There must be some controversy among the guests over seating arrangements for Jesus to notice and make comments. Perhaps a guest of great honor has arrived unexpectedly and late, causing a chain reaction of demoting people to less honorable seats.
What Do You Think?
In what ways have you been guilty of jockeying for position at work and at church? How have you made progress in correcting this problem?
In any case, there is some type of scrambling for seats based on individual desire for respect (compare Matthew 23:6). Jesus seizes upon this mini-chaos as a teaching opportunity.
8. “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.
The host is master in his own home, and he has unquestioned authority to determine seating order. This is his opportunity to honor those whom he wants to honor and, perhaps, dishonor those whom he thinks are taking advantage of his hospitality. It undoubtedly will be embarrassing to be bumped from one of the most honorable seats!
What Do You Think?
What are some ways that higher and lower seats present themselves in modern culture? Do you find it difficult to take the lower seat instead of the higher seat? Why, or why not?
9. “If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
Losing a seat of honor may involve more than just “going down a level.” For example, if there were a banquet with 50 guests and the host determined that the guest in seat #3 did not deserve that much honor, it does not mean that that guest would be pushed down to seat #5 or #8. It may mean that that guest would be sent to the least important place: seat #50—probably a seat on the floor. This would be a public indignity and an opportunity for laughter and derision from the more honored guests. It would be a moment of shame not quickly forgotten.
Pride and Place
The American Civil War provides numerous illustrations of human characteristics. Some are good, some are bad, many are somewhere in between. An interesting study in contrasts is that of the personal demeanors of Generals George A. Custer and Ulysses S. Grant.
Custer graduated from West Point in 1861 and was immediately sent off to war. He went through the ranks of second lieutenant to major general in less than four years. When he assumed command of his brigade in 1863, he was dressed in a showy uniform of black velveteen, gold braid from his elbow to his wrist, a blue sailor shirt with silver stars sewn on, and a red necktie. He was never accused of humility.
By contrast, General Grant was never accused of flamboyancy. Also a West Point graduate, he served in the Mexican War of 1846–1848, left the army, but came back in 1861. Victorious in several battles in the western theater, he came east in 1864 and ultimately forced Robert E. Lee to surrender in 1865. At the surrender, Grant wore the mud-splattered uniform of a private, with shoulder straps the only indication of his rank.
Custer dressed to impress; Grant (who later became president) cared only to succeed. Custer wanted to be noticed; Grant wanted only to win. If they both had been invited to a wedding banquet in the first century, one wonders who would have pushed up to the head table and who would have drifted to the back. —J. B. N.
B. Seeking Humility (vv. 10, 11)
10. “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.
Jesus presents an alternative scenario of being asked to move up from a common seat to a place of honor. Yet what Jesus is teaching is nothing new; see Proverbs 25:6-7.
We may imagine a host looking around and seeing humble Bob in the corner, sitting on the floor. The host may think, “That Bob is a solid guy; he deserves better.” He then calls Bob publicly to sit next to him, and thereby honors him in the eyes of everyone present. Rather than embarrassment and snickers from the other guests, they are thinking, “Bob is a lucky guy. I wish I were sitting where he is.” Bob will be honored by receiving the respect of his fellow guests.
Visual for Lesson 12
Use this visual as a discussion starter on ways to serve those who can’t repay us.
11. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Moses taught Israel that the one who exalts himself has done so by forgetting God (Deuteronomy 8:11–14). If praise and honor are rightly given to God, we have no right to take them upon ourselves. God will shame the one who seeks honor at God’s expense (see Psalm 35:26).
The flip side of this is that God is not unmindful of people who live lives of intentional humility. There is no need to toot our own horn to get God’s attention for our humble deeds of service (compare Matthew 23:12; Luke 18:14).
We may ask ourselves what it means to seek humility. Is this just a sick way of attempting to receive honor through self-abasement? No. True humility is not concerned with honor at all. No task is too degrading. No person is unimportant. No personal pleasure is so enticing that it cannot be postponed or lost. Service motivated by humility has its own rewards.
III. Humility Through Service (Luke 14:12–14)
A. Self-Serving Banquet Host (v. 12)
12. Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.
Jesus now directs his attention to the banquet host, the unnamed Pharisee. Jesus draws the man’s attention to four groups that are typical guests at social meals: friends (social peers, often those someone has grown up with), brothers (immediate family members), relatives (extended family members), and rich neighbors (those who may be able to offer financial benefits).
There is nothing inherently wrong with entertaining these people. Rather, Jesus finds fault with the motive for hospitality: the expectation of being repaid. Such a dinner is not a lavish social event given for the enjoyment of all who attend. It is, rather, a calculated attempt to obligate the attendees. In the future, they must bless the host in some way in return.
B. Other-Serving Banquet Host (vv. 13, 14)
13, 14. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus now offers a markedly different foursome of potential guests for a private banquet. Why not invite those who are seen as social misfits and outcasts? Why not make up the guest roster from the village’s poor, crippled, lame, and blind?
No socially respectable person like the Pharisee would consider allowing such people into his banquet hall. If this were the entire guest list, then the host would even have to place a person who is poor or handicapped in the place of honor at his right hand!
Jesus uses somewhat exaggerated language here to make a point. He is not saying that we can never feel right about having a family dinner unless we include some homeless people. His point is that we should not consider ourselves to be practicing true hospitality if we serve only those who can return the favor. Service that is pleasing in God’s eyes is service that helps those who cannot help us in return.
To do this is necessarily a humbling process. We are willingly acting as servants for those who may be many rungs beneath us on the social ladder. It is not a false humility, but a practical, legitimate humbling of oneself in favor of the needs of other people. It is to be judged by one thing: can those whom you are serving repay you? Are you expecting to get some tangible benefit out of this act? Or are you willing to wait and meekly trust God to reward your selflessness?
What Do You Think?
What are some practical ways we can care for the poor and needy? What cautions are we to be aware of?
“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is a common ethic. The fancy term for this is quid pro quo (literally, “something for something”). In this way of doing business, there is no such thing as a gift without strings attached. The idea is that if I do something that benefits you, you can be sure that I will expect a benefit in return.
What Do You Think?
How can we guard against seeking quid pro quo in our lives or in the church?
While this may be a necessary part of the normal conduct of business, Jesus does not teach this to his disciples as a way to treat others. Is a man truly a generous host if he expects his generosity to be repaid? Is a woman actually practicing humility if she expects her service to be recognized and honored?
The Bible teaches that there will be reward and honor in Heaven (see Matthew 5:12; 6:20; 1 Peter 4) and hints that there will be levels of reward (Luke 19:11–19). We do not understand this fully, and we must caution ourselves to remember that we are not granted eternal life in Heaven on the basis of our works. However, we can take hope in the promise that God does not overlook our dedication to service and humility. He has plans to reward us appropriately at the resurrection of the righteous.
Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, often seen on TV during the Christmas season. It tells the story of George Bailey, who has given up his dreams in order to run the family-owned lending institution. When thousands of dollars are misplaced and his business is about to be shut down, George considers suicide because his life apparently has been so worthless.
Then Clarence, George’s guardian angel, intervenes. Clarence shows him how the entire town would have been different in George’s absence. Rather than being worthless, George’s life has been a blessing to the town. One thing leads to another, and many friends give him money. Even the crusty bank examiner, moved by the town’s love for George, puts his own money into the hat.
The fictional George Bailey was a selfless “giver.” In the end he experienced a reward that he could not have imagined. Our heavenly Father is willing and able to reward us in the end. Any blessings we have been denied on earth will be compensated in ways that we surely cannot now imagine! —J. B. N.
Have you ever been surprised to find out that certain people have led secret lives of service? Have you ever noticed what unexpected things you learn at memorial services?
In my city I recently learned that the prominent owner of a car dealership had been taking one afternoon a week to read stories to critically ill patients at our children’s hospital. He had done this for over 30 years. Another time I became aware that a coworker of mine, a single professional woman, had been funneling her money to needy college students. Over the years, she gave away thousands of dollars anonymously, even though her salary was minimal.
While visiting a certain church, I learned that its quiet but steady head usher had passed away that month. The preacher of the church told me that this man had faithfully come early every Sunday morning to turn on the furnace and warm up the building. He then had stayed to hand out bulletins to those entering the sanctuary. He was a very quiet, shy man, but he had found a way to serve without drawing attention to himself. He had done this for nearly 50 years.
Acts of generosity and service that are designed to garner public attention can do a great deal of good. However, Jesus teaches us that such behavior ultimately is self-serving, and we should not expect God to reward us for them. Nor should we expect to be rewarded by those we serve. Service driven by a humble spirit will persevere, even in the face of ingratitude. True, a thank you makes this path easier to travel, but even this reward should not be expected.
Our greatest example of a humble servant is Jesus himself. Paul tells us that before Jesus’ incarnation, he shared equality with God the Father. Yet Jesus did not consider this something to be hoarded or protected. Instead, Paul writes, Jesus assumed a human likeness, the form of a servant. Although a rightful king, Jesus humbled himself and went to the cross obediently, taking on the sins of the world as a sacrifice (Philippians 2:5–8). The result of this is God’s exaltation of Jesus above all others (Philippians 2:9). Although we will not be exalted in this way, God promises to reward us too—if we choose the life of a humble servant.
Thought to Remember
God honors humble service.
Lord, give us hearts that seek to serve without a desire for honor or recognition. Give us hearts that are satisfied with the pleasures of doing your will and receiving praise from you. Give us hearts that are humble and pliable to your will. We pray this in the name of the great servant, Jesus, your Son, amen.