TRINITY XVII – Justus es, Domine
Introit: (Ps 119) Righteous art thou, O Lord, and true is thy judgement: O deal with thy servant according unto thy merciful kindness. Ps. Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: and walk in the law of the Lord.
Collect: Lord, we pray thee, that thy grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men:for better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen. Go not forth hastily to strive,
lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, when thy neighbour hath put thee to shame. Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself; and discover not a secret to another: lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine infamy turn not away. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear. As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters. Whoso boasteth himself of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain. (Proverbs 25.6-14)
Gradual: (Ps 33) Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord: and blessed are the folk that he hath chosen to him to be his inheritance. V. By the word of the Lord were the heavens made: and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.
Epistle: Brethren: I, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 4.1-6)
Alleluia. The right hand of the Lord bringeth mighty things to pass: the right hand of the Lord hath the pre-eminence. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: As Jesus went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day, that they watched him. And behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. And Jesus answering spake unto the Lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath-day? And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; 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? And they could not answer him again to these things. And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief seats; saying unto them, When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest seat; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest place. But 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. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (St Luke 14.1-11)
“Friend, come up higher.”
The entire culture of first century Palestine ran on the basis of honour and shame. All of life was about accumulating greater honour, while avoiding shame as much as possible. This basic fact helps us to understand today’s Gospel. We are told, “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” Now Jesus has already engaged in disputes with the Pharisees on two fronts: eating and the Sabbath. Here we find both together, so we can be sure that there will be a confrontation. The entire scene was staged from the beginning. Can’t you just picture it? …
One Saturday, after services at the local synagogue—maybe He had even preached there—one of the rulers of the synagogue invited this upstart young rabbi home for Sabbath dinner. The other guests—whom Luke tells us were also Pharisees—knew full-well who Jesus was and had heard His teaching, so they were watching His every move. And now the setup: “And behold, there was a certain man before him who had the dropsy.” Maybe he was one of the household servants, or a member of the synagogue, but whoever he was, this man had an obviously bad case, and this ruler of the Pharisees made sure that Jesus could not miss him. They knew that He healed the sick. So if He healed this man, they would condemn Him for breaking the Sabbath. But if He didn’t heal him, He would be callous and without compassion, not practising what He preached.
This was clearly no coincidence. But Jesus wasn’t born yesterday, either. So He shoots them a direct double-barrelled question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” quickly followed by: “Which of you, having an ass or an ox, if it were to fall into a cistern, would not at once pull it out on the Sabbath?” Immediately, He has turned the tables, and put them on the horns of a dilemma. According to their interpretation of the Law, the practice of medicine was strictly forbidden, because it was plying a trade. Yet the Law specifically allowed the rescuing of a draught animal (Ex 23.5; Deut 22.4). Is a human life not worthy of at least as much concern as a beast of burden? He poses a question which they could not answer one way or the other without condemning themselves, so they very prudently keep silence as Jesus simply heals the man.
The Pharisees were watching Jesus carefully. But Jesus was watching them too, and “He noticed how they chose the places of honour.” Positions at the table visually demonstrated the social pecking order of those present. Places near the host accorded the greatest honour. As very pious people and highly zealous for the Law, the Pharisees were accustomed to receiving honour. And when you put together a group of people greedy for honour, there will undoubtedly be competition and jockeying for position. Jesus had watched them scramble for the best seats at this meal, but He doesn’t directly criticize them. Instead He gives them a parable. He may well have had the passage from Proverbs in mind, and if so, was no doubt assuming that the Pharisees knew this passage as well. He says, “When you are invited to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than yourself be invited, and he and the host both come to you and say, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.” To be told publicly to move to a lower seat would be utmost humiliation! Rather, our Lord says, “Go immediately 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 honoured in the sight of all who sit at table with you.” Choose the lowest place, which will in fact bring honour, as one is publicly invited to move up to a higher seat. This may sound more like advice from Emily Post, but the word “parable” signals to us the fact that there is more going on here, and the punchline comes with, “For everyone who exalteth himself shall be abased, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
But how are the story of healing and this parable related? The sick man was suffering from dropsy. In modern colloquial speech, when we cannot hold onto something and keep dropping it, we might facetiously say, “I must have the dropsy.” But dropsy is really a rather antiquated word for the medical condition known as oedema, which means excessive fluid build-up—a painful and paralyzing swelling of the limbs that causes a person to become puffed up and extremely sensitive. Dropsy is a not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something deeper, often congestive heart failure. And does that not sound like an exact physical reflection of the spiritual disease of pride—a paralyzing swelling that makes one puffed up and overly sensitive, caused by congestive heart failure? Jesus heals the man with dropsy. The question is, will the rest of the dinner guests be healed of their spiritual dropsy? So the Great Physician gives them a clear diagnosis: pride, manifested in self-seeking and self-promotion. And the prognosis is that this will lead, not to glory and greatness as they imagine, but to ultimate humiliation. Pride is the original sin, which denies and contradicts the grace of God, and leads to final humiliation. Pride involves putting others down, in an attempt to push ourselves up. Humility is the very opposite of pride.
“Everyone who exalteth himself shall be abased, but he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.” In actual fact, while providing this instruction to others, our Lord is really describing Himself. Jesus humbled Himself for us, by entering the world in the Incarnation, by refusing to use His divine power to serve Himself, by taking on the role of a servant, by accepting death on the cross for our sins. Jesus humbled Himself because so often we do not (or will not) humble ourselves. Instead, we put ourselves first. We choose our own comfort, our own wants and desires, over someone else and their needs. We do not want to humble ourselves. The disciples didn’t want to humble themselves, either. James and John came to Jesus asking that they might sit on His right and left (positions of highest honour) in His Kingdom. Luke tells us that, at the Last Supper, a dispute also arose among the disciples, as to which of them was to be regarded as greatest. In response Jesus says, “Who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus humbled Himself for us. And thus He was exalted. He arose from the dead and ascended into heaven. St Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost: “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.” (Acts 2.32-33)
The humility of Christ is our salvation. He is the meek One who has inherited the earth, the humble One who has been exalted. He, though God, took on the form of a servant, and as a man, humbled Himself, even to the death of the cross. Therefore God has exalted Him above all, and given Him the Name above every name, that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2.5-11). His humility is our salvation, and His humility must become ours, for “every knee shall bow.”
A friend of ours reminded me of this on Friday, as she posted a picture of herself touching the star in the floor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity gives us a wonderful object lesson in humility. The door into that mysterious and ancient shrine is so very small and low that no one, save a little child, can enter without bowing down or falling to their knees. What a beautiful symbol both of the humility of Our Lord and of our own need for humility. Humility is honest self-knowledge. Humility involves our constant recognition of and dependence upon the grace of God. Whatever good we have is but the fruit of God’s grace in us. Humility, then, is to know and feel, “that there is one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in [us] all.” And it is in this humility alone that we may come to God.
But there is also a false humility, which is really another and more insidious form of pride. False humility is constantly putting yourself down in front of others so that they will build you up by flattery. But our Lord does not want us to fall prey to the illness of pride—of spiritual dropsy. He who humbled Himself in obedience to His Father, even to the point of death on the cross, gives us this great lesson in humility.
The entire fourth chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is a beautiful teaching on the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and its diversity of gifts. In today’s reading, St Paul says, “I beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Later in this chapter, he counsels that we must lay aside our former way of life, which deteriorates through illusion and desire (i.e., pride), and put on the new humanity created in God’s image, whose justice and holiness are born of truth. (Eph 4.22-24) This, says St Paul, is our calling: to follow our Lord Jesus, who humbled Himself, and whom God has now highly exalted. So let us come humbly before God, who is gracious and merciful, whose grace surrounds us, prevents (i.e., goes before) us and follows us, and alone makes us able continually to be given to all good works. And trusting not in our own goodness, but only in the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, we shall then be honoured, as He calls to us, “Friend, come up higher.” Amen.
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who resistest the proud but givest grace unto the humble: Grant that we be not cast down from our chief happiness by the swellings of pride, but rather that we ascend into heaven by the blessed steps of humility; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.