The Nature of True Humility
If one were to assess the nature of American culture today, the trait of humility would probably not rise to the top. "Success" is not deemed to be attained through humiliation but through personal drive and strength. Though our culture respects one who rises to the top through humble circumstances, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The result is a "dog-eat-dog" world where people only slightly interact as they compete with one another for position. How does a Christian respond in such an environment. Should a Christian press others aside in a effort to get to the top? Should a Christian stand aside and allow others to press by? Should a Christian invite humiliation? Living in a sin-filled world as a saved, yet sin-natured individual can be a complex and difficult task, particularly when its events and circumstances are in conflict to that which is Godly and edifying to the faith. How one responds to the self-centered nature of this world can reveal the true heart and nature of the believer.
In ancient Israel, it was the scribes and Pharisees who considered themselves successful. They were respected for their knowledge of, and obedience to, the law. With the school of Rabbis, they formed the government, legislated and executed its laws, and judged the people. Much of Jesus' teaching took place among the Pharisees, often taking place surrounding a public event in Jesus' ministry, or in the home of a Pharisee following an event in the synagogue. Though considered the religious leaders, Jesus often illustrated their lack of faith, and pointed out flaws in their character that are contrary to true faithful living. In an effort to teach the Pharisees, Jesus also taught those in their hearing, and those who read the scriptural accounts.
One of the primary areas where Jesus criticized the Pharisees was in the area of their personal pride. The exercise of pride serves to stand in the way of much of what would characterize faithful behavior. As Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry in the region of Galilee and Samaria, a Sabbath meeting with the Pharisees turned into a teaching moment, a time when Jesus would be able to address this subject.
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.
One of the settings that Jesus often used to teach the Pharisees was in the afternoon dinner that followed the Sabbath meeting in the synagogue. We see another example of this formal dinner, the kateklithe, in Luke 7. The traditions surrounding this dinner are important to our understanding of the context of Jesus' teaching at this time. It was traditional that a Pharisee would invite the guest speaker to his home for dinner following the meeting in the Synagogue. In order to assure the proper treatment of this honored, guest, there was a litany of rules specifying how he would be treated, including the washing of his feet upon entry to the house, anointing the head with oil, etc. He would also be given the prominent position at the table. On his right and left would be seated the next most prominent people, probably including the host. As one became further down on the scale of prominence, their position would be seated further from the head table position. Where one stood in this social spectra was considered important.
The home of a Pharisee might seem like a strange place to find Jesus, but it is quite evident that Jesus found himself there frequently as His public teaching ministry invoked continued invitations to speak in the synagogues. However, the Pharisees often remained suspicious of Jesus. Jesus did not attain his knowledge through training in the school of the Pharisees, what might be similar to the seminaries in today's Christian culture. Consequently, the Pharisees were often very analytical in their comparison of Jesus' teaching and what they believed to be the truth of the law. So, when Jesus enters the house of the Pharisee, he is closely watched.
And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. 3And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?
Recorded in Luke 7 is an account of where the kateklithe became a teaching moment when a woman worshiped Him at His feet. In a similar circumstance, Jesus finds an individual in the home that would not be invited to the table: a man who is suffering from "dropsy." It is likely that this malady was characterized by swelling and edema of the skin, something very visible, and consequently, considered a result of sin. The fact that the man is in the home has caused many to speculate that he was brought in an attempt to observe Jesus' response to him. The context of the Pharisees' known opinion would lead us to also believe that this was intended to test or snare Jesus by catching him in a theological error.
Knowing their hearts, Jesus simply poses to them a simple question. The laws of the Sabbath were a continual point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees because these laws, written by men for man's purposes, were an unnecessary burden on the faithful and drew attention away from true worship of God. However, instead of instructing the Pharisees in the application of God's purposes on the Sabbath, He asked their opinion on the application of their own law to this circumstance. Here was a man in need of a healing that Jesus could provide. He simply asked the Pharisees if it was legal under their litany of Sabbath laws to heal this man on the Sabbath day. By doing this, the test that was placed on Him by the Pharisees is reciprocated. If they state that it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, they would be in conflict with their own restrictive oral Rabbinical teachings. However, if they state that it is unlawful, they will have to defend their teaching against Old Testament law that permits good works on the Sabbath. The Pharisees gained great personal pride from their obedience to the Rabbinical Sabbath laws, so Jesus' question left them perplexed.
And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go;
The dilemma that Jesus' question posed was met with silence. The could not formulate an answer to the question, and at the same time it is obvious that, in their hearts, they wanted to hold to the Rabbinical law that forbade healing on the Sabbath. Most likely, the Pharisees had never before been faced with this dilemma because never before did someone demonstrate a healing ministry as Jesus did.
All we know of the sick man is that he was healed, and Jesus let him go. One can certainly speculate with good reason what the impact of the healing would be on the one healed. One can envision Jesus' compassion as He spoke gently to the man with the illness and imagine the man's wonder and appreciation when he was healed. However, none of this is recorded, because the purpose of this event surrounds the need of the Pharisees rather than the need of the sick man.
The conflict, however, has now gone beyond a hypothetical question and was demonstrated in action. In any other occasion, people would respond to such miraculous healing with awe and wonder. People would be giving thanks to God, and thanks to the healer for serving in such a way. It is evident that this was not the response of the Pharisees, though it was probably the response of most of the people there. So, Jesus addresses the Pharisees directly ...
And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath day? 6And they could not answer him again to these things.
The burden of the Sabbath law on the Jewish people is demonstrated by Jesus' response. Both the Old Testament and Rabbinic law provided for the rescue of an animal on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees would not give a second thought upon saving an animal in peril, whether it was his own, or one owned by a neighbor (Deut. 22:4). There is no Old Testament justification for saving a person in peril. The conflict arises over the Pharisaical definition of "work" that is forbidden. By pointing out this inconsistency in the application of their theology, Jesus reveals how that which they place so much of their pride upon is flawed. The only justification for rejecting a person in need is their own personal pride. In fact, the Rabbinical laws had reduced the infirmed to be considered one who is "unclean" and not to be touched. One could only enter the temple if they were "perfect", hence any physical ailment would alienate the infirmed from worship of God. Their entire system of belief towards those who are infirmed is contrary to God's purpose, and only serves to bolster their own pride as it diminishes the value of others in their own estimation.
And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, 8When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; 9And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. 10But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.
This parable of Jesus certainly makes practical sense, but as a parable also offers a spiritual truth. It might help understand this translation if we replace the word "room" with "place." Those who took part in the kateklithe reclined at couches that surrounded the table, oriented in the shape of the letter, "U". More than one individual would be assigned to a single couch, so the word, "chair," or "seat" is inappropriate. The most important place at the table is at the center point of the "U", with the most prominent individuals seated close-by. The places given to the lowest in esteem would be placed furthest from the focal point of the table formed by the prominent individuals. Consequently, the conversation at the table, centered around the guest, would be dominated by the more prominent people, with the less prominent only listening in.
Jesus' advice, through parable, is simple: behavior that is godly is not self-centered and prideful. When the pride-filled person enters the room, he is looking for the place of prominence. Given the opportunity to seat himself, he will invariably go to the place where he thinks he belongs, a place that is equal to his own self-importance. To do so exposes one's pride and self-importance to others. This would serve as an embarrassment to a host who has already determined the order. It is possible, even in our modern culture, to witness an almost identical situation. A modern wedding reception often assigns seats to its guests in order to assure that the more prominent people, such as close family and closest friends, are seated close to the bride and groom.
Most people, upon entering the wedding banquet hall, enter with an attitude of "where do you want me to be seated?". This is a dramatically different attitude than that which Jesus saw in the hearts of the Pharisees who vied for the best positions. Even the disciples demonstrated a similar conflict on who would be seated closest to the throne in Jesus' new kingdom (Matt. 20:21, et. al.)
The lesson in this parable is simply one of the virtue of humility over the sin of pride. The teaching of "protocol" in the parable speaks to the base attitude of the heart. True humility does not presume state or position. One who feels true humility feels honored to be invited to the banquet in the first place, and will be very satisfied with any position given by the host. Jesus teaches this form of servant-leadership on many occasions.
11For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
The exercise of personal pride is probably one of the greatest deterrents to unity and growth in the Christian fellowship. Those who think of themselves as important take for themselves the most important places in the banquet, and from that position exercise their own form of self-desired leadership. Though the Holy Spirit speaks through the hearts of all Christians in the fellowship, this model of pride-led leadership stifles the expression of the Spirit's work in the lives of all but those who have taken charge. Since those in charge in such a setting are largely pride-led, there is little expression of the Spirit taking place within the leadership. The result is a congregation where there is little growth and no shortage of disunity and conflict. I once told such a leader, "If you want to be the chief potentate, go join the Elk's club. They can use someone as skilled at leadership as you." There is no place for pride-led behavior in the body of Christ. Jesus taught and demonstrated a continued and uncompromised model of servant-leadership, warning several times that those who seek exaltation will be debased, and those who are truly humble will be lifted up.
True humility comes from a true understanding of who we are and where the power for life comes from. Who are we? All Christians are sinners, saved only by the grace of God, not by any goodness or work of man (Eph. 2:8-9). Because of this I am no better than any other man in the eyes of the Lord. I am different only in that I have an advocate with the Father who will defend me against the condemnation I truly deserve for my sin. All other Christians share the same advocate, and share in the same blessed salvation. Therefore, the "ground is level at the foot of the cross." No man (or woman, of course) is better than any other man. There is no room for pride among Christians. Those who do wield the weapon of pride in order to attain their own goals in the body of Christ will be held responsible for their actions (Jas. 3:1). What they feel now in exaltation will be received by the Lord in abasement.
All of the goodness and godly work that comes to life, comes through the power of the Holy Spirit. Called to Christian leadership, I am certain that I have acted out of personal pride and self-confidence in the past. I have also witnessed what happens when I have stepped out of the way and watched the Holy Spirit take over. There is simply no comparison of the results. These occasions help to remind me of my true place in the kingdom, and the true blessing of grace that is witnessed when the Holy Spirit takes charge.
It is probably useful for all of us to take a good look at whether our Christian experience is fueled by self-will, or fueled by the power of God. A deep look will most likely reveal a need for repentance (taught by Jesus immediately prior to this event), a prayer for forgiveness, and a commitment to humble service to God in any means that He chooses. It is my self-centered and prideful nature to look for the seat where I think I belong. It is God's purpose to appoint me to the place where He knows I belong, and that is a place where I can be of service to His kingdom as God seeks to continue to nurture me until the end of the age. Only pride will stand in the way of God's purpose. It is time that such pride is set aside.