The Greatest

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 26, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading below).

It’s funny how language changes over time. Certain words that once had one meaning now have have another. One example is goat. As long as that word has existed, it’s always referred to a specific type of animal, but it also has had a secondary meaning. Goat used to refer to someone who was a failure, someone you could blame. And that was most clearly the case in the world of sports. A goat is someone who lost the game for the team. The clearest example that comes to my mind is Scott Norwood, the placekicker of the Buffalo Bills who failed to kick a field goal to win Super Bowl XXV in 1991. With only seconds left in the game, the Bills were down only one point to the New York Giants. Norwood attempted a 47-yard field goal and missed it as the ball sailed wide right. The Bills lost that Super Bowl and the next three Super Bowls. Norwood played only one more year in the NFL before becoming an insurance salesman and then a real estate agent. Of course, Bill Bucker is another infamous goat, because his error helped the Red Sox lose Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

But now goat has a new meaning. It’s now spelled in capital letters as an acronym: Great Of All Time. People refer to Tom Brady as the GOAT. There are debates about who is the GOAT of the NBA. Is it Michael Jordan or LeBron James, or is it someone else?

While the acronym GOAT might be new, the question of who is the greatest is old. It’s the kind of barroom and sports radio debate that has gone on for as long as professional sports has existed. The question of who is the greatest isn’t limited to sports. There’s something in the human heart that seems to rank everything. We debate over which is the greatest movie, the greatest song, the greatest product, and everything else. This seems to start at a young age. Caleb often gives Simon two choices and asks him to pick which is better.

Everyone wants to know who or what is the greatest. This isn’t limited to our culture or time. In fact, even Jesus’ disciples debated about which one of them is the greatest. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, his biography of Jesus, we’re told that the disciples argued about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus used a child as an example of greatness and said, “he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48).[1] The shocking thing about that episode is that Jesus had just told his disciples—for the second time—that he was going to die (Luke 9:44; the first time was in Luke 9:22). I can’t imagine someone saying to a group of people, “I’m about to suffer and be killed,” and then that group of people act as if they hadn’t heard any of those words and start to debate something as petty as which one of them was the greatest. But that’s what Jesus’ followers did, and that reflects something about the human heart. Our pride causes us to try to be seen as great. We want other people to acknowledge us above others.

This same pattern occurs in chapter 22 of Luke, which we will continue to study today. Jesus has been sharing one last supper with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He explains that his body will be crushed and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. He has even warned his disciples that one of them will betray him. And, once again, the disciples start arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

We’ll see that in today’s passage, Luke 22:24–30. Let’s turn there now and read the passage:

24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For 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.

28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

It’s strange that the disciples would pick this moment to argue about something such as this, but I think it makes sense. Jesus has just told the group that one of them would betray Jesus. That person was Judas, who sold Jesus out to the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill Jesus. They had to arrest him away from the throngs of Jewish people celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Jerusalem. When the disciples heard that one of them would betray Jesus, eleven of them must have thought, “I would never do that.” Then they started to ask each other which one would be the betrayer. In verse 22, it says, “And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.” It’s not much of a leap from that kind of question to a discussion over who was so great among them that he would never betray Jesus.

At any rate, the disciples were quarreling over who was the greatest, and Jesus issues them another warning. He basically says, “Don’t try to be like those pagan kings who are all about power and prestige. They don’t lead their people by serving them. No, they lord their power over their people. They may be called benefactors, but they don’t benefit the people.” “Benefactor” was something of a technical term. It sounds good to us, but it reflects another situation in the ancient world: those who were wealthy became benefactors to patrons in order to gain political power and also to have their patrons be indebted to them—not in literal financial and legal terms, but socially. People in the ancient world didn’t give charitably; they gave gifts with the expectation that those who received the gifts would give back to them one way or the other.

Jesus tells them not to be like those worldly leaders. Instead, in the kingdom of God, the truth path to greatness comes through humility and service. Those who were older and in positions of power and respect should act like younger people, people without power. In our day, youth is a prized possession, but that wasn’t the case then. People didn’t idolize youth the way they do now. The point Jesus is making is that they shouldn’t strive for positions of high status. When those who were wealthier or who were honored guests would eat a meal, they would “recline at table.” They would literally be on the floor, in a somewhat reclined position, eating off low tables while they relaxed. In that society, they would be viewed as greater than the people serving them. Perhaps think of a very fancy wedding reception, where the guests are served by those working for a hotel or catering company. The honored guests have a higher status than those servers. In that sense, they are greater. But Jesus tells them that, in reality, it’s greater to serve.

First, he says that leaders should serve. Leaders are not in leadership position to get attention, to accrue power, to sit around and be served by people who are under their authority. Instead, leaders are supposed to serve.

Second, Jesus says that he, the real GOAT—Great Of All Time—has come to serve. If Jesus, the greatest person that has ever walked the face of the Earth, is a servant, then his disciples should be servants. The disciples are students. They should follow the example of their teacher. The disciples are subjects of the King, Jesus, who is not only King of the Jews, but King of kings, the Son of God who became a human being. If such an exalted, authoritative, powerful person came to serve, then his disciples should as well.

I’m going to come back to how Jesus serves in a while. But first, I want to point out that what Jesus says here is consistent with what the Bible says about seeking power and glory. And this is a message that we desperately need to hear, especially in our celebrity-infatuated culture.

It seems like everyone in our culture wants to be famous, wants to be rich, wants to be popular. And because of social media, it is easier than ever to aggrandize yourself. People with a moderate amount of looks and talent parade themselves online in a long series of selfies and videos. They may post revealing pictures of how they look. They may brag about their achievements, or even brag about their family. They may post videos of themselves singing or performing. It’s not wrong to post a picture of yourself, or to share news about something in your life, or to be pleased with your family. It’s not wrong to share your talent with the world. But I think many people go beyond mere sharing. They want to be acknowledged. They want to be seen as great.

But there’s something rather distasteful about such status seeking. Certainly, the Bible addresses that issue. Proverbs 25:27 says this:

It is not good to eat much honey,
nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.

Seeking your own glory is like eating too many sweets. It may feel good at the time, but it’s not good for you.

Proverbs 27:2 says this:

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.

These verses aren’t just biblical. They’re also highly practical. They speak about how things go in the world. I think we’ve all experienced people who love to talk about how great they are. Generally, we don’t want to be around such people. The practice of praising yourself is annoying. And truly great people don’t do that sort of thing. Their greatness is apparent. I have a Facebook friend who is a former student of mine, from when I was a professor of music. He posts quite a few selfies of when, I suppose, he’s dressed up for work. He’s not a bad looking guy, but he’s also not a matinee idol. And more than once, he has posted a selfie with a few little fire emojis, which I guess is his way of saying, “I’m looking really hot right now.” I’ve been tempted to write, “If you’re really hot, you don’t need to say it.” But I don’t, because I don’t want to humiliate the guy. But there is something kind of desperate and pathetic about drawing attention to yourself.

Yet we tend to idolize people who have greater power, money, talent, and status. We do that through celebrity news. We do that through sports. If we were to meet a great entertainer or athlete real life, we would be star struck. But we don’t tend to be in awe of the person who volunteers their time, without fanfare, for a church or some charitable cause. We don’t see a woman who has given away a large percentage of her income each year and get nervous and be reduced to a bumbling idiot because we’re so in awe of her generosity. We are drawn to celebrities and we are in awe of them.

This happens within the church, too. We live in an age of celebrity pastors. There have been celebrity pastors for a long time. We might think of Charles Spurgeon, for example. Billy Graham was a celebrity preacher and evangelist. There are pastors of megachurches who are celebrities. It’s not wrong for a preacher to have a large audience. If he faithfully preaches the word with a great amount of skill, we might expect that he’ll gather an audience. Jesus gathered crowds. But there’s a danger there. Because we tend to be drawn to people who appear great, we may put them on a pedestal. And because we tend to crave power and popularity, celebrity pastors may be tempted not to serve God and the people who are under their care, but to build their own kingdoms. And this is happening now. Pastors have used their positions to become rich. They have used their positions to be celebrated, to appear before large crowds, to gain power. And a lot of people seem to buy into this. We elevate a man, thinking he is the anointed one, when in reality he may be not be serving others, but serving his own interests. Churches build additional campuses in which there isn’t a live preacher, but a celebrity preacher on a screen, as if there’s only one man who can preach. This just feeds into our celebrity culture. It’s not a good thing.

And it’s not terribly new. Of course, today there are many ways for one pastor to be broadcast to large audiences. But even before such technology, there were celebrity pastors of a sort. In the first century, there were some men who claimed to be preachers of the gospel. They claimed to be apostles of Jesus Christ. They probably dressed nicely and spoke in very eloquent, clever, and powerful ways. The apostle Paul, who probably wasn’t terribly impressive physically or even vocally, refers to these men ironically as “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11). The problem is that they weren’t preaching the same message as Paul. They weren’t preaching the true gospel message, the good news of Christianity.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about this issue, he urged them not be deceived by appearances (see 2 Cor. 11:1–15). Though he had to defend his ministry and remind them that he taught the truth, he said he wasn’t boasting in himself. He writes, “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:17–18).

Paul knew that what mattered most was not seeking to make one’s self look great in the eyes of other people. He knew that what mattered was not boasting in one’s self. He realized that people would view him differently. Some would love him, and some would look down on him. What mattered to Paul was being faithful to what God had called him to do, to be commended by God. We might say he was working for an audience of One.

Jesus commended this same practice. He taught that we should aim not be seen as righteous, but to aim to please God. In Matthew 6:1, he says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” One way of trying to be great is to do good works in order to be seen. I think that’s part of the human condition. There’s something inside of us that craves recognition. This isn’t entirely bad. It’s just that it’s misplaced. We should want God’s recognition, God’s approval. But even then, our motivation shouldn’t be to do something for God so that he will reward us. We should do things for God out of love and thanks and because it’s simply the right thing to do. We certainly shouldn’t do things to be seen to a good person.

Yet that’s so hard for us, to do what is good and right without calling attention to it. I’m sure many of us have been guilty of that. I’ve certainly heard people in this church boast in their own way about how they were doing good things. But that is one way of seeking greatness, even within the church. Another way of seeking greatness in the church is getting our way or maintaining our little positions of power. I think that’s why there is often conflict in churches. If we all focused on doing things the best way, doing what was right, and doing it in the most excellent manner, then we would have greater unity. But instead, we have our pride. We want to be the ones to do that thing, whatever it is, because we want recognition. If we all focused on pleasing God first, then many problems would be resolved.

Instead of seeking to draw attention to ourselves or seeking to have power, we should seek to serve, because that is the way of Jesus. As he told his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus doesn’t say here how he serves. But we know from the other Gospels how he serves. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus says these words, we’re told something else. He says this in Matthew 20:25–28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus came to serve by giving his life as a ransom for many. He came to redeem people from sin. Sin is not just the wrong things we do. Sin is a power at work within us, a tendency to rebel against God, to do things our way instead of his way. And chief among the various sinful dispositions is pride. That was the sin of Adam and Eve, who wanted to be God. It’s the sin of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon who surveyed his kingdom and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). (Nebuchadnezzar was immediately humiliated by God until he came to his senses.) It’s the sin of Herod Agrippa, who was claimed to a be a god and who was struck down by the real God “because he did not give God the glory” (Acts 12:23). And it’s the sin of you and me. We want to be the center of the universe. We want to do life on our terms, not God’s. We want to be GOATs. But there’s only one GOAT, and it’s not you or me.

Because God is truly the greatest, and because this is his creation, he would have every right to condemn rebels, to remove them from his world. But God’s greatness includes his mercy and grace. Instead of destroying all rebels, he sends his Son to save many of them. The Son of God, who has always existed in glory and splendor, the one through whom God the Father created the universe, became a human being. He humbled himself to become a man (though he was and is still God). And he came not be like Nebuchadnezzar and Herod, to live in a palace and be served. No, he came to serve by laying down his life for his people. After living the perfect life, he was treated like a real goat, a scapegoat. The sins of his people were placed on him, and he died to pay the penalty for sin. He bore great physical pain on the cross. But he also endured the spiritual pain that is condemnation. He endured this so that his people could be spared that penalty and could be forgiven. He lowered himself so others could be exalted.

Jesus demonstrated this act of service by washing his disciples’ feet. Though Luke doesn’t write about this in his Gospel, John does. That is an interesting fact, by the way. You would think that Luke would write about that, because it would strengthen his point, that Jesus came to serve. But Luke doesn’t. John does write about. Now, since John’s Gospel was written later, some people who are skeptical might think that this story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was fabricated, a bit of fiction. But if that were so, it’s quite odd, because John doesn’t discuss the disciples arguing about who would be the greatest. When you read John, you don’t understand why it was that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. The reason is given in the other Gospels. The Gospels have several of these moments, which some have called “undesigned coincidences.”[2] Each Gospel is like a puzzle. The pieces fit together, but sometimes it seems like a piece is missing. That missing piece can be found in one of the other Gospels. Yet this fitting together of the Gospels isn’t done in any kind of obvious way, so that it looks like humans contrived to make up stories that fit together, the way that criminals might come together to make up an alibi. Instead, the Gospels read more like eyewitness testimony. Each witness focuses on certain things, perhaps what they remembered most clearly or what was most important to their story. But together, these eyewitnesses give us a greater picture of what happened.

At any rate, this is what happens in John’s Gospel. Here is John 13:1–5:

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

In this time and place, people wore sandals. And they walked great lengths along dirty and dusty road. Their feet became quite dirty. When they ate at someone’s home, that host would have a servant wash the feet of his guests. Here, Jesus becomes the servant, washing their feet, because he loved his disciples “to the end.” He later makes it clear that his washing their feet symbolized his cleansing them of their sin. Those who belong to Jesus, who trust him and follow him, are made clean. Their sins are removed.

Then, after Jesus had washed their feet, he said to them:

Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:12–17).

We can’t remove the sins from other people. But we can serve them in many ways. This is the way of Jesus. He served and he expects his people to serve. Those who do this are blessed.

So, Jesus teaches his disciples to be humble and to serve. And, paradoxically, this is the way to be exalted. Look again at Luke 22:28–30:

28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jesus tells his disciples that their positions in the kingdom of God will be great. They will sit on thrones in the new creation, leading all of God’s people, a renewed and reconstituted Israel that consists not just of Jewish people, but of Gentiles, too. In fact, all of God’s people will reign with God forever (Rev. 22:5). But I think the apostles will have greater authority than we will, and that’s God choice. All Christians will be with God forever in the new creation, but not all will necessarily have the same role to play and the same status. And that’s fine.

The reason that’s fine is that’s the way it is in this life. Jesus does not teach here that the disciples were not to be authorities. Jesus isn’t teaching that there aren’t authorities in the church. The church needs leaders. Never does it say in the Bible that the church is a democratic society, where everyone decides what is right. Christians are called sheep, and they need shepherds. There are many Christians who don’t think the church should have real authority, that the pastors or elders of the church shouldn’t be strong leaders. I think that’s very misguided. Jesus isn’t teaching that at all. In fact, Jesus, though he came to serve, was a very strong authority. He spoke with authority. He delivered hard truths. But he did this for the right reasons. Being a leader who makes decisions, even unpopular ones, is one way of serving. Jesus’ point is that leaders should lead in a way that benefits the people. And what benefits God’s people is doing things God’s way. God designed life to function in a certain way. Because he loves us, he wants us to live rightly. Leaders are supposed to love people by pointing them in the right way, by making sure they stay on the right path. Leaders are not supposed to seek their own glory or build their own little kingdoms. And all of us are supposed to have the same kind of attitude.

The reality is that the true way of greatness is loving God and loving other people. The truth path to greatness is serving God and serving other people. Ironically, if he we strive after greatness, we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the GOAT. Those people who strive for greatness now will come to a harsh reality when the meet the true GOAT. They will have to stand before him in judgment, just as we all will. And the ones who failed to serve the GOAT will be the real goats. Their sins remain on them, and they will be punished for those sins. Those who trust and serve the GOAT are sheep, the people who will enter the new creation to live with God forever. (See Matt. 25:31–46.)

Seek greatness and you will never get it. But forget about greatness and serve the One who is truly great, and you will find it. What matters is not whether we appear great to other people. What matters is what God thinks of us. What matters is whether we’re faithfully serving God, doing what he has called us to do.

God has not called all of us to be in the limelight. He has not called all of us to be leaders. Some Christians will end up doing things that are far more public than others. But that doesn’t mean they are greater. The one who serves quietly and faithfully in the background may be the truly great one.

Wherever you find yourself today, seek to serve God. You must first see that you are not great. You certainly aren’t the GOAT. But Jesus is the GOAT. And he’s the only goat, the scapegoat, upon whom your sins can be placed and punished so that you don’t have to be punished. Trust that Jesus is the only way to be in a right relationship with God. If you’re not a Christian, humble yourself before God, confess your sins to him, and accept Jesus as his provision for your sin. As James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8, 10).

Christians, faithfully serve Jesus in whatever situation you find yourself in. God has put you in a certain place and time to do what he wants you to do. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Don’t wish God had made you somehow differently. Accept the role that God has assigned for you, and faithfully serve in that role. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek out a different job, or to find some new position of service. If that’s God’s plan for you, it will happen. But I think one of the ways that we could all thrive is not to covet the supposed greatness of other people. I think we would be happier and healthier if we accepted the role God has given to us and served in that role according to his commandments. That is the only way to true greatness.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing, 2017).

 

The Greatest (Luke 22:24-30)

Who is the greatest? Many people think being the greatest means striving to be the richest, most popular, or most accomplished person. But Jesus says the path to true, lasting greatness is through humility and service. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 22:24-30 on January 26, 2020.

Increase Our Faith

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 11, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

I saw an interesting video clip this week.[1] It was of some moments from the national convention held by the Democratic Socialists of America.[2] The video clip was edited to show a few of the more, well, interesting moments of their meeting in Atlanta. At the meeting, a man in attendance raised his hand, was acknowledged by the moderator, and then approached an open microphone to address the crowd. He began, “Uh, guys, first of all, James Jackson, Sacramento, he/him. I just want to say, can we please keep the chatter to a minimum. I’m one of the people who’s very prone to sensory overload. There’s a lot of whispering and chatter going on. It’s making it very difficult for me to focus. . . . Can we please just keep the chatter to a minimum? It’s affecting my ability to focus. Thank you.” Right when James said, “Guys,” a man in a red dress started to get agitated. He got up to the microphone next and said, with no little amount of passion, “Please do not use gendered language to address everyone.” He obviously was offended that the previous speaker would address everyone as a “guy.” The next scene in this clip was once again of James Jackson, who addressed the crowd a second time, with quite a bit of annoyance audible in the tone of his voice. “I have already asked people to be mindful of the chatter of their comrades who are sensitive to sensory overload, and that goes double for the heckling and hissing. It is also triggering to my anxiety. . . . Your need to express yourself is important but your need to express yourself should not trump . . .” That moment got cut off, but he was apparently trying to say that the need for someone people to make noise shouldn’t trump his need not to hear such noises, which were triggering his anxiety.

The next moment in the video clip featured a speaker from the podium, who encouraged people not to clap but to raise their ends and wiggle their fingers. Because, you know, all that noise was triggering the people who have sensory overload. This leader acknowledged that there were many “disabled comrades” at the convention, and that many of these comrades had “invisible” disabilities, which make it hard for them to “navigate” the space they were in. For example, those people given to sensory overload. To accommodate such disabled comrades, this speaker let the audience know that there were quiet rooms available. He also urged people not to go into those spaces with “anything that’s like an aggressive scent.” After all, he said, “we don’t want to put people in stressful situations that they don’t consent to.”

Now, it would be easy to laugh at these people and call them crazy. Yet I think that video clip reflects something very serious in our society. It seems that the worst thing we can imagine is that we would be offended. Apparently, that is one of the worst crimes—to offend someone without their consent. (I’m not sure how you could offend someone consensually, but perhaps that’s what we pay comedians to do.) Heaven forbid that we be offended.

It also seems that the greatest thing that we could achieve is to realize our dreams, whatever those may be. The greatest thing, it seems, is to satisfy our emotions and desires. Another great good is getting everyone else to accommodate our wishes, to have everyone affirm our project of self-actualization. If I have certain desires, you must affirm them as good and right for me to have, and to act upon. If I want to quit my job and leave my family, who are you to tell me that’s wrong? No, you should cheer me on and tell me to follow my dream.

Yet Jesus says things that contradict the idols of our age. He says that the greatest crime is not to be offended, but rather to offend. The greatest crime is to offend God, to rebel against him, to disregard him, to disobey his commands. And the greatest achievement is not to fulfill our dreams and have everyone else cheer us on as we pursue them. No, the greatest thing is to serve the King of kings, God himself.

We’ve been studying the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Today, we see another passage that features the teachings of Jesus. He warns his followers about sin and tempting others to sin. They, realizing that the Christian life is difficult, ask Jesus to increase their faith. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, I’ll do that very thing. I’ll give you more faith.” No, he tells them that even a little faith can do great things. But he warns them that they shouldn’t do great things for themselves, or to manipulate God. They should serve God because it is their duty; it is what God expects of all of us.

Today, we’re going to read Luke 17:1–10. We’ll read it in three parts. I’ll start with the first four verses.

1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”[3]

Here, Jesus warns against tempting others to sin. Why? Because sin a most dangerous, toxic thing. Imagine warning people at a convention not to offend others. Now, amplify that by the order of a million. That’s the danger of sin. Sin is truly the root of all evil. It’s that evil power that’s inside of us, that causes us to do what is wrong. One not-so-orthodox Christian author has called it the “human propensity to f*** things up.”[4] This author writes this about sin: “It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”[5]

Now, you may think, “What’s the big deal? So what? We all screw things up? Who hasn’t?” Well, the reason why this is all a big deal is because the “things” that we foul up are not our own. They are God’s. God is the very center of the universe. He is the goal of the universe. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, and all things are made through him, to him, and for him. So, he has made everything, and therefore everything belongs to him. And that includes human beings. Our propensity to foul things up doesn’t end up in just scratches to cars, cabinets, and computers. We have a tendency to hurt each other. But what is most offensive to God about all of this is that our sin is rebellion against him. We ignore that he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We ignore that everything was made by him and for him. We ignore the fact that he is perfectly good, wise, and powerful. We think we can do without him, at least on our good days. Sin is a failure to acknowledge God as God. It’s an attempt to de-god God, usually to put ourselves on his throne.

Sin is corrosive, toxic, and destructive. It’s like a cancer that metastasizes until the whole organism is diseased and beyond hope. Don’t believe me? Look at the news. See stories of mass shootings and sexual abuse. Look at a divided nation, full of people who spew hate and are selfish. Of course, sin isn’t always spectacular. It often takes the more mundane form of thinking solely of oneself, of breaking promises and failing to live up to our own moral codes. Sin can take the subtle form of a bad thought or an impure desire. We don’t have to look farther than the mirror or our own souls to know that sin is real. G. K. Chesterton wrote, over a century ago, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[6]

Sin is so serious that Jesus says three important things about it here. One, he says that in this fallen world full of sin, temptations to sin are inevitable. Until the day when Jesus comes to Earth a second time to bring human history as we know it to an end, there will be sin, and there will be temptations to sin. But that doesn’t mean we should just give in and sin with abandon. So, two, Jesus says that those who tempt others to sin are cursed. It would be better to have a millstone, a giant stone used to grind grain, tied to oneself and then be thrown into the sea than to cause others to sin. Jesus refers to Christians as “little ones.” In other Gospels, it seems he says something like this when referring to children, but here it seems he’s referring more broadly to Christians. At any rate, he’s saying there are worse things than death. Leading others to sin is likely to incur condemnation.

The third thing Jesus says about sin is that we should keep an eye on ourselves and also on our brothers and sisters. Not tempting others to sin isn’t enough. We need to avoid sin ourselves and if we see others sinning, we should warn them and even rebuke them. And if they turn from sinning and seek forgiveness, we must forgive them. The true mark of a Christian is repentance—turning away from sin and back to God—and seeking and giving forgiveness when repentance is present.

The seriousness of sin is at the heart of Christianity and it’s at the heart of the Bible. Just read through any section of the Old Testament and that becomes clear. Read any one of the Gospels, and you can see that. This message must have struck the disciples as quite serious, because when they hear it, they ask Jesus for help. Let’s look at the next couple of verses, verses 5 and 6:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

The disciples hear what Jesus has to say about the seriousness of sin, and they must be thinking, “We can’t do this without your help. Increase our faith!” That sounds like a good request. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve prayed something like that in the past. But what’s surprising is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure, I’ll do that. Thanks for asking.” Jesus’ response is something we wouldn’t expect. He doesn’t say that they need more faith. Instead, he says that if they had even a small amount of faith, say, the size of a tiny bit of mustard seed, the kind that might be produced by the grinding of a millstone, they would be able to command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Now, I don’t think anyone would want to plant a tree in the sea, but what’s impressive about that feat is the uprooting of a mulberry tree. The black mulberry tree has a very deep and complex root system, one that allows the tree to live up to six hundred years. So, the idea of uprooting it entirely through a command seems impossible.

The idea of planting it into the sea is strange. I wonder if Jesus has something from the Old Testament in mind. At the end of Micah, there’s a beautiful passage about God’s mercy, grace, and love. This is Micah 7:18–19:

18  Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19  He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.

If we turn from our sin to Jesus and seek forgiveness, he will uproot our sin—which, like that mulberry tree, is something we couldn’t dig up—and cast our seas into the sea. Even a little bit of real faith in Jesus will move our sins into the sea. I don’t think Jesus means that if we have faith, we’ll have all kinds of superpowers. A careful reading of the Bible never leads to that idea. Jesus’ point is not that we’ll be superheroes if we have faith. His point is that God does amazing things with a little faith. And, truly, to be forgiven of sin is an amazing thing. So is avoiding sin and helping others to turn from sin back to God.

Perhaps Jesus anticipated that the disciples might take this bit of teaching the wrong way. They might have thought, “Well, we have more than a little faith, so we must be able to do great things!” And the disciples do great things in time. If you read the book of Acts, you see that some of them performed miracles. But Jesus wants them to know that we don’t do great things to make ourselves great, or to manipulate God to do our bidding, or to put God in our debt. No, we do things for God because it is our duty. We see that in the next few verses, which form a short parable. Let’s read verses 7–10:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Jesus is picturing a situation in which there is a master who has a servant, really a slave. In ancient Judaism, Jewish people sometimes sold themselves into slavery when they couldn’t pay a debt. They became indentured servants—servants who were to be treated well and who could be freed in time. Still, they were servants. Jesus asks his disciples to imagine that they are masters. If they have a servant who does outside work, such as plowing and keeping sheep, when that servant comes inside, does the master serve the servant? No. Instead, the servant keeps on serving the master. Jesus asks the disciples, “Does the master thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” No. The servant was doing his job. It’s like what Bill Belichick told the Patriots: “Do your job.”

Jesus then flips the script. He had told the parable from the perspective of the master. But now Jesus tells his disciples that they aren’t masters. No, they are the servants. He says, “When you’ve done your job, don’t look for rewards. Don’t think God owes you anything. No, just humbly tell God, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to get big heads. He doesn’t want Christians to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14, the one who goes to the temple and, while praying, basically brags about all the good works he does. No, Christians have work to do, and they should do their jobs without expecting much in return.

The reason why that is so is because Christians have already been given their reward. If you become a Christian, you have already received so much: forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family, a place in the body of Christ, the great gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within you, and the promise of eternal life. If you’re a Christian, you have already received a priceless gift, a treasure that cannot possibly be valued. But God doesn’t save us so we can sit around doing nothing. He has planned good works for us to do in advance.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that Christians receive a right standing with God as a gift. Salvation—including our faith—is a gift from God. That means that we can’t possibly boast about any of it. We can’t say to God, “Look how much I’ve done. Now you owe me.” We have nothing to boast about. But Paul also says that we have work to do. This is what he writes in Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Many people quote verses 8 and 9 and leave off verse 10. But that’s wrong. We are saved by grace through faith. Yes. We can’t boast about any of that. Absolutely true. We are not saved by good works. We are saved by the work of Jesus. But we are saved for good works. And we should do them humbly, not seeking rewards or applause. We do them for God and for the sake of others, not for ourselves.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, what do we do with it? How do we apply these verses to our lives?

First, we should consider the seriousness of sin. Jesus warned his disciples not to tempt others to sin. And he told them to keep an eye not only on themselves, but also on their brothers and sisters in the faith. What that presupposes is that Christianity is lived out in community. We can only come to Christ alone. My faith won’t save you. Your parents’ faith won’t save you. You must have faith in Jesus. You must repent of your sins. But once you become a Christian, you enter into a new family. You are a member of the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). You’re a living stone that is part of the temple that is the church (1 Pet. 2:5). You’re part of something larger than yourself. You are not alone. You become your brother’s keeper and your sister’s keeper.

If we take this seriously, we realize that we can’t treat Christianity as some kind of product that we buy for ourselves. So many people seem to treat Christianity that way, as if it’s some kind of personal, private thing. So many people treat the church that way. They come and go as they please. They don’t actually join a church. They don’t think about their experience of church through the eyes of other people of the church.

Part of joining a church is realizing that you need accountability. You consent to come under the authority of the leaders of the church, realizing that you are a sheep who needs a shepherd. You’re a Christian who needs an overseer. You’re part of a family and you need an elder. But you also come under the authority of the congregation. They can discipline you. They can correct and rebuke you. But they can also serve you and encourage you and comfort you. And not only that, you realize that the people of the church need all those things from you. You realize that they need your correction. They need your service. They need your encouragement, your love, your presence in their lives. Every local church would be far better off if all Christians realized this. Christianity isn’t just you and your private relationship with Jesus, your personal Savior. Jesus isn’t a personal Savior. He is the world’s only Savior. And he is Lord. He’s also the head of the church, and he wants his people to enter into a real community.

So, if you’re a Christian, officially join a church and start living in community. I would say this: The more you put into church, the more you’ll get out of it. And the more other people will get out of it. If you just show up here for about 70 minutes each week, you’ll get a little. Showing up is important. It’s no small thing to attend regularly. But if you really want to be part of the life of the church, you’ll show up for our other meeting times. You’ll come early for our Bible study. You’ll hang around after the service and talk. You’ll come back Sunday evening, or join us on Wednesday nights for more Bible study and prayer. Or you’ll get together with other Christians during the week. Be part of this church in a meaningful way. If you don’t know how to do that, talk to me.

Joining a church is one thing we can do to apply this passage to our lives. But we should also note the seriousness of sin. Now, if you’re here today and you don’t happen to be a Christian, you may wonder what all of this has to do with you. Well, consider the Christian message. Sin is so toxic, so destructive, that we should do everything we can to avoid it. But that’s not the whole of the Christian message. If I told you just that, you’d think that Christianity is about trying to be good, about avoiding bad things. That might give you the impression that we get into God’s good graces through avoiding sin. But that wouldn’t be an accurate impression of Christianity.

The message of Christianity is that sin is so powerful that we cannot clean ourselves up. We can’t make ourselves good. We can’t heal ourselves of the cancer that is sin. From our perspective, it’s an incurable wound. Yet God can heal that wound. God can take that sin from us and cast it into the sea. And he does that through Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. He’s not just a man. He has always existed as the Son of God, yet over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature to himself. He became a human being. He lived a real life on Earth. He was conceived—though in a miraculous way. He was born. He grew up and learned. He ate and drank and slept. And when he was an adult, he performed miracles to demonstrate who he was and what he came to do. He taught amazing things. He lived a perfect life. Yet though he is the only human being who lived a perfect life, who never fouled things up or had the human propensity do so, he was treated like the worst of criminals. We might say he had a millstone tied around his neck and was tossed into the depths of the sea. But he was tossed into something worse. He was thrown into the heart of darkness that is God’s judgment against sin. He experienced God’s wrath while on the cross. Literally, he experienced hell on Earth. He did that so that all who turn to him in faith could have their sin cast away forever. All who turn from sin and turn in faith to Jesus have their sins removed and receive his righteous standing before God. All of that is a gift. That is what we call grace.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus today. I would love to talk to you personally about what it would look like for you to become a Christian. And if you are a Christian, consider how serious sin is. It is so bad that nothing less than the Son of God had to become a man and die for it. Don’t treat sin lightly. Run from it. Don’t tempt others. And if you see others sinning, help them. Correct them. Don’t be silent. There are several passages in the New Testament that talk about correcting others (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:14–15; James 5:19–20). Yes, you may offend someone if you correct them. But there are worse things than offending someone else. Their offending God is far worse. And the penalty for offending God without repentance is eternal.

Here’s another thing to consider: We don’t need to ask Jesus to increase our faith. Instead, we need to obey. What matters isn’t the strength of our faith. What matters is the object of our faith. You can’t get a more solid, more powerful, more trustworthy and loving and gracious and wise object of faith than Jesus. He will not fail us. Your faith may waver. It may be mixed with doubt and even selfish motives. But Jesus will not fail. If you have even a little bit of real faith, that will lead to obedience. We don’t need to keep saying, “God, increase our faith.” Instead, we need to act on what we know to be true.

Let me put this another way. Instead of waiting for God to increase our feeling of faith before we obey, we need to obey in order to have an increased feeling of faith. If you’re married, you know how fickle emotions can be over the life of a long relationship. If you’re doing marriage well, you don’t wait around saying, “When my feeling of love for my spouse increases, then I’ll treat him or her well.” No, if you want to have a greater feeling of love, you treat your spouse in a loving way. You do something kind for your spouse, something you know your spouse will appreciate. When you do that, the feelings of love will follow.

In a similar way, if we want to have a greater experience of faith, we must obey Jesus. Do what he teaches, whether it’s the commands he gave us directly or the commands that come through the apostles. When you obey Jesus, you will find that your feeling of faith increases. When you do what he says, you will start to see how right his commands are. You will see that what seemed impossible actually turns out for your good and for the good of others. And your faith will increase. If you want a greater experience of the Christian life, don’t keep shopping around for what you think is a better church. Don’t think, “If only my church were better, I’d have more faith.” Don’t wait for God to give you riches or health or a better job or new friends. Don’t sit around and wait for feelings. Follow Jesus. And then you will find your experience of faith will be better.

But when you obey Jesus, don’t start to think that you’re great. Don’t boast. Don’t brag about your good works. And don’t think God owes you, as if you’re entitled to an easy life, a smooth ride without pain and suffering. Being faithful may mean that your life becomes harder. We don’t do good works for our own glory. We do good works for God’s glory, and for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we do good works, we can humbly say, “We are unworthy servants, saved only by God’s grace. We have done our job for the King, for the Master, and that is a reward in itself.”

Notes

  1. You can see the video for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPLQNUVmq3o.
  2. For one take on the convention, see Elliott Kaufman, “Democratic Socialists Sound Like Democrats,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/democratic-socialists-sound-like-democrats-11565214408.
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 24.

 

A Great Banquet

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 16, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Recently, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, to do course work on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Southern Seminary. I started this degree last year, and I have to travel to campus twice a year. When I’m there, I usually go out to dinner with a group of other students. Since none of us live in Louisville, we’re not sure of the best places to eat. So, we get on our phones, and with apps like Yelp or TripAdvisor, we look up well-rated restaurants. We can see where the restaurant is on the map, what kind of food it serves, see pictures of the food, and even look at the menu. One of the students had a car, so we could drive to the restaurant of our choice quite easily. And there were many choices. A few times, it took us more than a few minutes to settle on one place. But it was rather easy.

This reminds me of what a young comedian once said. In describing his generation, he said that he often would spend so much time trying to figure out which restaurant to eat at (he lived in New York City), that by the time he was settling on a place, he realized he had run out of time, so had to make himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

We have so many choices today, more than ever before. And it’s so easy to get good food, if we want it. But since we’re drowning in choices, and since so many things compete for our attention, time, energy, and money, we often don’t make the right choice. Instead of choosing the best food, we settle for something quick and easy.

Though we have more choices than ever before, there have always been things that have competed for people’s attention, time, energy, love, money, and other precious resources. And people have always made bad choices.

I mention this because today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see that Jesus tells a couple of parables about meals. In one of them, he warns people about trying to exalt themselves. In the other, he says that the kingdom of God is like a great feast, and many people have been invited to it. But people offer up excuses as to why they can’t come. They have chosen lesser things instead of coming to the great banquet. Those who choose not to come to this meal will never eat the finest of foods, the food that they need.

We’re looking at Luke 14:7–24 today. As your turn there in your Bible, I want to remind us that Luke is a biography of Jesus. Luke told his readers that he had written his biography of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).[1] Luke wanted his readers to know that what they had already been taught about Jesus was true, that what he writes is real history. It is the truth.

In this section of Luke, we read about Jesus’ many conflicts with the religious leaders of the day, primarily the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders who were known for their pious adherence to the law that God had given Israel at Mount Sinai many centuries before. Jesus often criticizes these men for seeking honor instead of righteousness, for being hypocrites, and for missing the point of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. But Jesus has a lot more to say than just criticizing the religious powers that be. He teaches all of us about the kingdom of God and how to be a part of that kingdom, where God not only rules over his people, but also blesses them. And in today’s section of Luke, we see that Jesus talks about what those who are part of God’s kingdom should and should not do.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 14:7–11. There first point of this passage is to humble yourself so that you will not later be humbled.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go 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 honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A couple of weeks ago, we read the beginning of this chapter, when we learned that Jesus was eating in the home of a Pharisee (Luke 14:1). He’s still there, talking to those who were invited to that meal.

The Pharisees were the kind of people who liked to look good. They were concerned about their public reputation. In fact, it seems that they were more concerned about appearances than about the state of their hearts. In Luke 11:43, Jesus chastises them for seeking honor. He says, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Once again, at this meal, Jesus sees that they chose the places of honor at this meal. In the ancient world, honor was very important. Where you sat at a meal indicated your status. This is still true to some extent. If you attend a wedding and you’re seated closer to the bathroom than the wedding party, that tells you a lot about how much the bride and groom value you. But it was more important in the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Sitting next to the host indicated that you were higher up on the social ladder than those who sat farther away.

Jesus sees the Pharisees scrambling to fill the places of honor, so he tells them a parable, which, in this case, isn’t much of a story, but is really a bit of sound advice. He tells them not to sit down at a place of honor. Why? Because there may be “someone more distinguished than you” who comes along and is given your place. Then, you will have to face the shame of moving to a lower place. Jesus says that it’s better to take a lower place and then later be asked to sit in a higher place.

Now, this is sound advice. It’s actually found in Proverbs 25:6–7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great,
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

It’s better to be humble and be elevated than to be proud and face the potential embarrassment of being knocked down a rung or two on the social ladder.

But Jesus isn’t just dispensing common sense, or nice little life lessons. He’s teaching something far more important. He says, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Both James and Peter quote the Greek version of Proverbs 3:34, which says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). James continues to say, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Jesus is getting at something far more important than proper dining etiquette. Those who are concerned with honor in this life may very well not receive any honor in the life to come. Those who are proud, who strive for positions of power and prominence, may be knocked low for eternity. Those who are part of God’s kingdom have nothing to boast about, because they realize their status is a gift from God, not something they’ve earned, and certainly not something they’re entitled to.

This becomes clearer in the next paragraph in Luke 14, when Jesus tells those dining with him who they should and should not invite to a feast. Let’s read verses 12–14:

12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

In the ancient world, it was assumed that you would be kind to those who could be kind to you in return. In other words, you would give something to those who could give you something back later. If you held a feast, you wouldn’t invite people unless they could give you something back later, whether that was an invitation to their own feast, some kind of honor, money, business, or something else valuable.

But Jesus says that we shouldn’t give to expect something back in return. He says not to invite the rich and powerful, “lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.” Earlier in Luke, he said, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).

In that verse and in the verses we just read from Luke 14, Jesus mentions being rewarded, but not from others in this life. The reward doesn’t come from those we’ve flattered, buttered up, and served so that we can receive from them later. No, the reward comes from God. On that great day of resurrection, when human history as we know it is brought to an end, that day when Jesus returns to the world to settle all accounts and to make all things new, the just, those who have been declared righteous in God’s sight, will be rewarded. Jesus doesn’t mean that we earn salvation by doing a lot of good works, by inviting poor people over to our house. That would be contrary to so much that we read in the rest of the Bible. What he means is that those who have received God’s grace, those who have the gift of being declared right in God’s sight through faith in Jesus, will extend that grace to others. They will live differently. They will invite others to their homes who can’t pay them back, who aren’t in a position to do favors in return.

Speaking of grace, we all know that famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Many of us know that the words were written by John Newton, a man who once was a slave trader and who later became a pastor. Newton wrote many hymns, but also many sermons and letters. In one letter, he writes this:

Let your friends who are in good circumstances be plainly told, that, though you love them, prudence, and the necessary charge of a family, will not permit you to entertain them, no, not for a night. What! say you, shut my door against my friends? Yes, by all means, rather than against Christ. If the Lord Jesus was again upon earth, in a state of humiliation, and he, and the best friend you have, standing at your door, and your provision so strait that you could not receive both, which would you entertain? Now, he says of the poor, “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” ‘Your friends have houses of their own, and money to pay at an inn, if you do not take them in; but the poor need relief. One would almost think that passage, Luke 14:12–14, was not considered as a part of God’s word; at least I believe there is no one passage so generally neglected by his own people. I do not think it unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us, that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.[2]

That may be a bit extreme. The Bible doesn’t forbid eating with friends, and Newton recognizes that. But the point is that if we had to choose between hosting a friend or hosting a poor person, we should choose the poor. We all can and should be gracious not just to those who are like us, those who are already kind and generous towards us. That’s what the world does. Earlier in Luke, when Jesus talked about not giving in order to receive, he said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32–33).

If you’re a Christian, you should realize that everything you have is a gift from God (James 1:17). You don’t experience God’s goodness because you have earned it or because you’re entitled to it. In fact, God has told us that we don’t deserve anything from God except judgment because we have failed to love him and obey him. We fail to obey him because we fail to love him and trust that his ways are good. Instead of God being the King of our lives, we would rather live like kings and queens of our own little dominions. Our sin is a personal, relational issue—a failure to love and live for God, as well as a failure to love our neighbors—and our sin is also an authority issue—we don’t want to come under God’s authority, so we rebel against him. Because of that, we deserve to be excluded from the great feast that God has prepared for all the citizens of his kingdom.

And that brings us to the next paragraph in Luke 14. In the first paragraph, Jesus teaches that those who humble themselves will be exalted. In the second paragraph, he teaches us to invite the humble to our feasts. And in this third paragraph, he tells a parable about a great banquet. Here are verses 15–24:

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

After Jesus has taught a bit about honor and humility and whom to invite to a feast, as well as what will happen at the day of judgment, someone at this particular meal blurts out, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Perhaps he did that to break the tension, to change the subject. Or perhaps he meant it. At any rate, Jesus uses that statement to teach about the kingdom. He tells another story.

The story is quite simple. A man once held a banquet, a great feast. At the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned how easy it is to find good places to eat. Going out to eat is more expensive than cooking food at home, but it’s relatively easy for us to afford a nice meal. Compared to people of all times and places, we eat like kings and queens. In the ancient world, preparing a feast was a big deal. It’s not like people had refrigerators and freezers and supermarkets. If you slaughtered an animal, you had to cook it quickly and eat it quickly. You couldn’t save the leftovers. If you killed a fattened calf to eat, you would invite many people to come to eat. And preparing a meal would involve much more, such as making your own bread. The point is that having a great banquet was special, it required a lot of sacrifice and effort on the part of the host, and if people were invited, they were expected to come.

In this story, invitations were sent out to many people. And it seems like they at first accepted the invitation. But when the time of the banquet arrives, everyone who was invited has an excuse as to why they can’t come. One says he bought a field and now has to see it, which is rather strange. Who buys something sight unseen? And why is it such a pressing issue to see this field? Couldn’t it wait until the following day? Another person says he bought fight yoke of oxen and has to examine them. Again, who would buy expensive animals without first examining them? And even if you bought them sight unseen, it’s not like you couldn’t wait until later to get a good look at them. The third excuse comes from a man who says he has just become married. There may be a hint here that he will be too busy romancing his wife to come to this feast. Again, this is no emergency. The man could have a date night with his wife at some other time. These excuses are lame. In fact, they’re insulting. It’s like inviting someone to your wedding, only to be told they can’t come because they have to mow their lawn.

So, in this story, the servant who invited people to his master’s feast tells the master about the lame excuses he is given. The master rightly becomes angry. He tells the servant not only to invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” but also to bring them in. This suggests that they would need help getting to the party. In this society, people wouldn’t think to first invite the poor and disabled. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, but they were not regarded as honorable. According to Jewish law, those who were disabled couldn’t serve as priests in the tabernacle and temple (Lev. 21:17–23). They were regarded as unclean, as outcasts. They wouldn’t be able to repay the master of the feast by inviting him to their own feasts, because they wouldn’t ever be in a position to give a feast. You had to have wealth to do that.

When the servant brings in the poor and the disabled, he tells his master that there is still room for more guests at the great banquet. The master then tells the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel to people to come in, that my house may be filled.” Some people believe this is a reference to Gentiles. “If the Jews won’t come, then invite the Gentiles to the party!” Some people have misused this verse to try to coerce people to become Christians, to “compel” them by force to make a profession of faith. I don’t think either of those views are correct. Yes, Paul said many times that because many Jewish people wouldn’t believe his message about Jesus that he would go to the Gentiles. But Paul was a Jewish man who came to faith after first rejecting an invitation to the Lord’s table. And he always held out hope that more Jews would come to Jesus. And Christianity has never been spread through force or violence, because it can’t. We can’t force people to believe something that they don’t. We try to reason with people and persuade them to put their trust in Jesus. We invite them to taste and see that the Lord is good, but we cannot force anyone to come into God’s kingdom.

The point that Jesus is making is that there is room for all kinds of people in God’s kingdom: the misfits, the outcasts, and so forth. There may be many who make excuses as to why they don’t put their trust in Jesus, why they don’t live for him, read their Bibles, come to church, or obey God’s commands. There will always be people who make those excuses. But the ones who realize that this invitation is the best offer they will ever receive will come.

Throughout history, there have been rich Christians, people of high standing. But more often than not, the people who realize their need for Jesus are people who are, in the world’s eyes, weak and poor. The apostle Paul told Christians in the Greek city of Corinth:

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

God often chooses to demonstrate his strength through the weak, his wisdom through the simple and uneducated, his glory through the humble. What matters is whether we realize that all of us are foolish, weak, and low, and whether we realize the invitation that Jesus gives to us is to the greatest feast ever.

What kind of feast are we invited to? The answer is given by the prophet Isaiah. He looked forward to a time when God would recreate the world to be a paradise, a new creation without sin and death (Isa. 65:17). In one of the many passages where Isaiah reveals what will happen at the end of history, he writes this:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).

Perhaps we don’t appreciate this image of a feast because it’s so easy for us to get food. In fact, we have too much food. We’re in a strange position in America: we’re not harmed by lack but by abundance. It’s easy enough to get some pretty good food, and more than we need.

But think about all the good meals you’ve ever had. I’ve had a few experiences of eating in some expensive restaurants. Sometimes, I’ve eaten so much that I feel stuffed and bloated. When eating, I thought, “This is really good food!” But later, I thought, “I shouldn’t have eaten that much.” At other times, I’ve anticipated a meal only to think, “Is that all there is? Why did I pay that much for a meal that only satisfies me for a few hours?” That’s how it is with so much of what we choose in our lives, whether it’s a meal, a career, a relationship, entertainment, or anything else. We don’t feel satisfied. We wonder why we chose that thing that was bad for us. We’re disappointed. We realize that what we hoped would fill us has left us empty not long afterwards.

But think about the meal that Isaiah prophesied about, the great banquet he foresaw. Sure, he talks about rich food and well-aged wine. But those are just images of how God satisfies our spiritual cravings with the greatest food and the greatest pleasures. Then look what Isaiah says: at that time, God will remove the covering, the veil, that darkens our lives. He promises that God will swallow up death itself. No other feast promises us the end of death. No other invitation that we might receive makes such a grand promise. We might be invited to many things in this life: a party, a game, a rock concert, a job offer, a way to have some quick and cheap pleasure. But none of these things will ultimately satisfy us. And certainly none of those things will remove that great and ugly destroyer of pleasure and hope: death itself.

But Jesus offers us an invitation to life that never ends. He promised us food that will satisfy, that wouldn’t leave us feeling hungry or bloated or sick. And the reason that Jesus can make that invitation is because he is the one who gives us that spiritual food.

Think about eating. What do you do when you eat? You take something that was once living, and you consume it so you can live. Think about eating the choicest steak. That once was a cow. Even vegetarians eat things that once were living. To live, we need to feed on something that dies. And this is true of spiritual life. In order to live, we must have a way to evade God’s wrath against our sin. We must find a way to escape punishment on that great day of resurrection. If we were to stand on trial before God, who knows everything we’ve ever thought, every twisted desire we’ve ever had, every foolish or cruel word we’ve ever spoken, and every other action we’ve ever performed, the evidence would not be in our favor. We would be found guilty, failing to love God and other people the way we should, failing to live according to God’s rules for life. We wouldn’t be invited to God’s table.

Only Jesus lived the perfect life. And if you take time to read about him in the Gospels, you’ll see how he always honored God the Father. He was never selfish or cruel. He never compromised. He never sold out for money or anything else. Only he lived a perfect life, never sinning. Yet he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin—if we trust him, if we accept his invitation, if we recognize that we have been spiritually blind and lame, if we humble ourselves. If we trust in him, Jesus’ death gives us life. He becomes our spiritual food that sustains us. He is the only way to the greatest feast, where death is abolished and where we are satisfied.

Jesus warned that those who reject his offer will never taste his banquet. His parable reflects something else in Isaiah:

11  “But you who forsake the Lord,
who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
12  I will destine you to the sword,
and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
and chose what I did not delight in.”

13  Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
but you shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame;
14  behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
but you shall cry out for pain of heart
and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
15  You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
and the Lord God will put you to death,
but his servants he will call by another name” (Isa. 65:11–15).

If you are not yet a Christian, I urge you to humble yourself before the Lord, and to accept his gracious offer to come to his feast. Don’t make lame excuses: “I’m too busy. I’ll learn more about Jesus when I have time, but right now isn’t a good season in my life.” None of us know how much time we’ll have left to live. Take the offer now while it stands. When you’re dead, it will be too late.

If you are a Christian, invite others to come to this feast. If they make lame excuses, perhaps read Luke 14:15–24 to them. And be gracious. God has invited you, a spiritual outcast, to come to his table. He has taken you, a lowly person, and put you in an exalted position in his house. Be gracious to those who are lowly and weak, and give to those who are poor and can’t pay you back. If we have received our Lord’s invitation, let us follow our Lord’s example.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 136.

 

A Great Banquet (Luke 14:7-24)

While at a meal, Jesus talks about seats of honor and inviting people to the great banquet of the kingdom of God. Who will eat at God’s table? The one who is humble and accepts God’s invitation. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 14:7-24 on June 16, 2019.