Pharisees exalt themselves
The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity
St. Luke 14:1-1
When I was a deacon, it occurred to me one day that the people in the parish I was serving needed to know how smart I am. I puzzled over how to turn on that light for them. Finally, I settled on a course of action.
I decided to pick an argument with Mr. Harrington. He teaches humanities in a private school. When I was a kid – going to public school – all we knew about humanities was that it was something like the SPCA.
In our neighborhood, when you found a stray dog, you knew sure as you knew Mickey Mantle’s batting average that your dad wasn’t going to pay to feed him so you took him down to the humanities society shelter.
But now I know that humanities is something you’ve got to be really smart to learn. Anybody who teaches it must be a big brain. So when I won my argument with Mr. Harrington, everyone would see how smart I am.
But then I decided, no, instead of Mr. Harrington I’ll pick an argument with another parishioner, Dr. Bob. He’s a Rice University guy with a Ph.D. When I was a kid – going to public school – I was the oldest of three in a family in which no one had ever gone to college.
I mean the whole extended family. My dad told me from the time I was gnawing on his ankles, “Boy, you’re goin’ to Rice.” I came to think of Rice as my destiny.
So when the time came I headed over to Rice and said, “Here I am!” And they said, “Great! Do you want to cut the grass or mop the halls?” So that didn’t go awfully well . . . but I’ve gotten smarter since then. I knew when I won my argument with Dr. Bob everyone would know how smart I am.
But then I thought, no, all of Dr. Bob’s degrees are in history and political science. I want to win an argument with a theologian. So I decided I’d pick an argument with our rector, the Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw. He was also dean of our seminary.
When I was a kid – going to public school – we figured anybody with a title like that had to be bigger’n the pope . . . or even Joel Osteen. When I won my argument with him they’d all have to admit how smart I am.
But then I thought, if you’re going to pick an argument with a theologian, why not go straight to the top? I’ll start an argument with God.
And that, I suppose, is something like the thought process the Pharisees used in deciding to take on Jesus Christ.
It didn’t go so well for them. I had a better chance of getting into Rice.
But they’re at it again today. St. Luke gives us in chapter 14 the third occasion on which our Lord heals on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are shocked – shocked, I tell you! Exactly as they had planned to be.
On the Sabbath at the house of one of the chief Pharisees, Jesus heals a man with dropsy, or edema, a condition that causes one to retain water and swell. We might conclude he was a throw-down sick guy, that the Pharisees had planted him there to lure Jesus into an illegal healing . . . but that would be speculation.
We know for certain that they were watching our Lord closely – trying to catch Him out. Again. And again we see His mastery of them. He uses their arrogance in thinking they could bait Him, their condescension to a hillbilly rabbi from Galilee, to teach humility.
Let’s bear in mind that in his gospel St. Luke is giving an account of the Lord’s ministry to someone he addresses as “Most Excellent Theophilus.” The name means “Lover of God,” but that’s all we know about him. The evangelist is relating what Jesus did and laying out the case for why He did those things.
At the Lord’s first Sabbath healing, St. Luke recounts, the Pharisees were “furious.” At the second, they were “humiliated.” Along the way, St. Luke lets us know that Jesus had informed them that One “greater than Solomon” had come.
He is wiser than the wisest man who ever lived . . . and still they refuse to listen to the saving wisdom He brings but instead try to match wits with Him.
At the end of chapter 13, St. Luke reports Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, which “kills the prophets and stones the ones who are sent to her.” Now in chapter 14, he presents more evidence of the Pharisees’ intransigence. Another Sabbath healing. More outrage.
They are both furious and humiliated once more, of course, but this time we learn that they fall silent. If you had a farm animal that fell into a hole on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, would you not render the simple mercy of pulling it out? He is saying, by implication, if you would help a dumb beast, why would you not help a man?
They have no answer. But neither do they repent – change their thinking. I see your point. I can’t refute it. But still I choose not to change my opinion to fit the facts; I’d rather burrow deeper into my own corrupted attitude in which I have lived so comfortably for so long.
Sound familiar? To return to Solomon for a moment: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
For centuries, the Jewish leaders had stoned the prophets God sent to condemn their sin and preach repentance. St. Luke has told us in his gospel of the arrival of John the Baptist, the final Old Testament prophet, who came preaching a baptism of repentance. The enemies of God killed him as well.
Now appears the final Prophet, God’s own Son. St. Luke and his fellow evangelists show us healing after healing to demonstrate the Lord’s great patience, to leave no doubt that He produced repeated signs and wonders as evidence of His mercy and power for any who would soften their hearts.
And the Pharisees turn a deaf ear to Him as well. Soon they will shout, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Surely you see, Theophilus, Lover of God, how desperately God ached in His great heart for His chosen people to return His love. Surely you see, Christian, how great was the sacrifice of our Lord Christ for those who would bear His name.
Jesus tells the dinner party a story of a banquet. The most important guests often arrived last. If you should be at such a function, do not claim one of the best seats – those nearest the host – lest that host ask you to give way to someone greater than you who arrives late and you suffer shame.
Take a lesser seat and perhaps the host will bid you move up closer.
The leading cause of humiliation is lack of humility.
Our good news for today has to do with humility. The bad news about the good news is that our Lord addressed it not only to a small gathering in a home in first-century Palestine but to us as well. Jesus says to us today:
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then and now, a proud sinner wants to spit up the medicine of humility the way I used to gag on my grandmother’s cod liver oil. Just look at the Pharisees.
In the arrogance of their self-justification, their determination to redeem themselves by their observance of the silly statutes into which they had twisted God’s good commandments, they made themselves blind to the kingdom of God as it paraded before their eyes.
Throw away your empty ritual, purge the books of nonsense laws. The One who will offer the final sacrifice, the One who fulfills the law of God . . . has come. Perfect Grace walks among you on two legs and He is making all things new.
Healing is the very essence of the Sabbath. Nothing could be more fitting than to restore men to perfect health for that is the state in which we will spend our eternal rest in the presence of the God of glory.
No dropsy, no disease or defect will we carry there. Christ is lifting from us the palsy of our sin and making us clean and whole to dine at His table.
Arrogance has no place at that table. Jesus, the washer of feet, has come bearing the gift of humility. He bestows it through His Holy Spirit on those who will receive it. Receive it! You will not enter the eternal Sabbath without it.
The Pharisees embraced the Sabbath and shunned healing as they sought righteousness and rejected repentance, as they pursued knowledge and spurned godly wisdom, as they grabbed at glory for themselves and denied honor to others. They were master builders of the kingdom of man and a wrecking crew running loose in the kingdom of God.
They prayed for a demagogue and when God sent not the one they wanted but the One they needed they executed the divine deliverer.
But He lives on in His Holy Spirit, who dwells in you, bidding you not to quench the Spirit but to reveal Christ to a lost and hurting world that is desolate without the healing gift of humility. “The queen of the Christian graces,” it has been called.
God bestows the gift of prophecy on some, of teaching on some. He favors some with talent to praise Him with glorious playing and singing, some with uncommon courage to take the witness into hostile places. But He offers the gift of humility to all.
Unlike the Pharisees, those who receive this gift can produce an answer. It begins with repentance. Absent confession of sin there is no sorrow for sin and absent sorrow for sin there is no remission of sin. On the seventh day, God entered into His Sabbath and threw open its gates to the creature He made as the crown of His creation.
Our prideful rebellion has cost us the fullness of it in this life but our Lord has come to restore it to those who will kneel before Him and accept His healing gift of humility.
Here’s a definition of humility: putting the interests of God and our fellow man ahead of our own. No, wait a minute . . . that’s the Great Commandment. To love God and love my neighbor as myself is to humble myself.
I will not pretend expertise in the field of humility – there’s a minefield for you – but I can claim some recent experience in it. When I decided on a change of course well into middle age, I unwittingly set myself up for a baptism of humility.
In my previous incarnation I had traipsed through press boxes and locker rooms, never feeling ill-equipped for the challenges I encountered. Even in dealing with general managers and owners of professional franchises it never occurred to me that I could not hold my own.
But when I began a transition into vocational ministry God placed in my path some men before whom I stood in awe. I think of two in particular who set their courses early in life and prepared for God’s service at a level beyond my imagining.
They studied the classics alongside the Scriptures, learned languages, read the great books, interacted with the thought of the great thinkers. They trained at a graduate level at the best schools for secular vocations that gave them a platform for their ministries and a means of support for their families.
I learned to check my opinions and pay close heed to theirs. I developed enough wisdom to understand that when there are faster guns around I’d better keep mine in its holster.
One of these men founded an agency that is pushing the gospel into dangerous, faraway places. The other founded a Christian college and honored me by asking me to teach Bible and New Testament Greek.
One of my students, named Sean, came to us having devoured the high school curriculum for home schoolers by age 14. While he was taking Greek with me and Latin with another teacher as well as an intensive great books course and a full academic load, he and a friend began learning French, Spanish and Italian for fun.
I taught him biblical Greek for two years and then he wanted to read Homer in the original. I had never studied Homeric Greek but I said we would tackle it together. Halfway through our first semester I watched Sean barreling into the distance as I was struggling to get out of the starting blocks. I blessed him and sent him off of an odyssey to find a better teacher, if he needed one.
If I wanted a vocation in His kingdom, God seemed to be telling me, I would need a bucketful of humility. And for a hard case like me, He would provide a few extra blessings.
In the first seminary I attended, I sat under the teaching of men three decades my junior. Along the way, I heard it said that if you want to find a person in any field acutely aware of his ignorance, look for one with a Ph.D. in that discipline. So far, I have achieved only a master’s level of ignorance – but even that is imposing.
I became a postulant for holy orders at age 61 and watched younger men race past me on the ordination track because I was required to put in my time in the denomination before I could sit for the deacon’s exam. Sometimes grudgingly, I learned to give honor to those to whom honor is due.
Serving in that parish in which our seminary dean, Dr. Crenshaw was rector, I found myself in strong disagreement with him on two occasions. I gave him my views and swallowed hard. God had made him rector, not me. Until the day I was ordained a priest I addressed him as “Fr. Crenshaw,” never by his first name.
I had come to see that he did not need to be exalted; I needed to be humbled. That realization helped me to grasp that God does not need to receive my worship; I need to offer it.
By this time I was thinking, well, Lord, maybe I’m getting overqualified in humility . . . but He had a different view. Still does.
On high, He beckons us into His Sabbath rest – if only we will accept His healing gift.
The God who commands us to forgive others if we desire His forgiveness tells us to exalt others if we yearn for exaltation into His glorious presence. We can join the Pharisees in picking an argument with God or we can bow low before Him and offer thanks for His healing gift of humility.
It is only when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves – in Christ the Giver.
When I was a kid, going to public school, I thought it would be way cool to run the world. Now I consider it a privilege to serve the One who made it. Amen.