Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” 6 And they had nothing to say.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:1-11, NRSV)
Pheme is the Greek goddess of fame and reputation. In the ancient Greco-Roman world she was famous herself for being a tremendous gossip, always prying into the affairs of mortals and other gods and then repeating what she heard. When somebody was in her good graces she would bestow upon them the favor of others. If she was not impressed with you, however, she would spread rumors about you and trash your image as best she could. It was thought that at night Pheme would sit on the rooftops and spread truths and falsehood indiscriminately. Her palace was situated in the center of the world on a high peak and had 1,000 windows and as many doors which were always open to amplify every whisper about every person from the most faraway corners of the world. The poet Virgil once said of her, “she has her feet on the ground, and her head in the clouds, making the small seem great and the great seem greater.” If you wanted your fifteen minutes of fame, or even just wanted people to like you, Pheme was your idol.
As we established last week in the introduction to this series on idols, an idol is a good thing that we make into an ultimate thing. Only God is meant to be for us the source of ultimate security, identity and meaning in life. That means that when we take something else, even something good, and look to that thing or that person to provide what only God can provide then we have turned our affection towards an idol which, in the end, cannot deliver what we are asking it to deliver. All of us have done this and continue to do this. As John Calvin said long ago, the human heart, every human heart, is an idol factory.
Now, fame and reputation and status are good things. It’s not a bad thing to be liked or even to want to be liked. I enjoy it when other people like me. I’m guessing you do too. However, when gaining the approval of other people becomes a driving desire in our lives, as it likely has for many of us in this room today, then it becomes an idol, a good thing we have made into an ultimate thing.
Recently a young man wrote this about his father on his website.
My father would always tell me, “You’re just not good enough.” I remember him telling me this every time I would lose a tennis match in high school. He eventually made me want to stop practicing hard to make it to the next level because I was afraid of his disapproval if I failed. I asked him to stop coming to my matches, even though I went 10-1 my senior year because I was worried he’d show up for that one loss. Losing is already a painful feeling. To then have your father be disappointed with you is terrible.
I remember coming home one day so proud of my 92% math final score. Instead of congratulating me he asked me what happened to the other 8%. I stayed up all night for weeks studying because I’m pretty bad at higher level math. All I wanted was a high-five for my efforts. Once again I disappointed my father, but this time I didn’t fade. I tried harder in school because I wanted to prove to him and to myself I wasn’t a failure. I needed options. But I realize now that no matter what I do I will never live up to my father’s expectations.
He recently shot me an e-mail telling me, “Congrats on trying a new website design. It should be awesome once all the kinks are worked out.” I ended up staying up till 4 a.m. that night trying to work out all the kinks.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking the approval of your parents. But even in the healthiest relationships, if your ultimate identity and meaning in life is rooted in gaining the approval of your parents, or any other person for that matter, then you are asking someone to deliver something they were never meant to deliver. Even if your parents are perfect in this respect, even if they never dwell on the 8%, they will likely not always be there for you to give you the approval you so desperately need and desire. Then what? Who or what will then give you the approval you need to justify your life?
So many of us so badly want others to like us and approve of us. The destructive fallout from our addiction to approval is stunning to consider. How many people have put up with abuse from somebody else because they so desperately want to be loved, or even just liked by that person? On how many occasions have people stood silent in the face of injustice or wrongdoing, keeping quiet because they know that to speak the truth would be unpopular and would then, in turn, make them unpopular? How many times have you done something you knew you ought not to do, or not done something you knew you really ought to do, because you were worried how it might look to those you were trying to impress?
Pheme is a ruthless goddess. The Greek poet Hesiod once called her an “evil thing” because she is “a light weight to lift up, but heavy to carry and hard to put down again.” Isn’t that the truth? It’s so easy to go down that road of centering your life on pleasing others but once you head down that highway it’s so hard to find an off-ramp. The driving fear in your life becomes the fear of rejection.
In 1980 I was freshman in high school. I have a clear memory from that time of me standing one day in front of our bathroom mirror. I’d just been shopping and brought home some new clothes. The new shirt was made by Izod, identified by the iconic alligator on the front. The collar was made to be worn down but I had it perched up like some sort of shield around my neck. It was pink, the first and last pink piece of clothing I have ever owned. The shirt was accessorized by a blue knit sweater I don’t believe I actually ever wore in the way it was meant to be worn. Instead the sweater hung around my shoulders and was tied in a knot in front in such a way that it did not obscure the alligator.
It’s true, I had voluntarily picked out these clothes at the store myself but, in a way, it was a fashion statement I did not choose for myself. And to this day I actually remember standing there in front of my bathroom mirror looking at this ridiculous costume and thinking to myself, “Really? This is what I’ve got to do? This is what it what it’s gonna take?”
As teenagers most every one of us in this room made great sacrifices at the altar of Pheme. We wore clothes we really didn’t want to wear, said things about other people we really didn’t want to say, did things we really didn’t want to do, all for the sake of being accepted and liked by other people who were doing the same things to be accepted and liked by us. All these years later I’d like to tell you I’ve grown out of it. I have, thankfully, gained some independence in my fashion choices. I have not, however, completely grown out of my slavery to approval. I’m afraid that too often I still don’t speak truth when truth needs to be spoken for fear that others may not like me for speaking it. It’s embarrassing how easily I’m drawn to people I think will enhance my image and how naturally I steer clear of people I think will taint it. You wouldn’t believe how many times I say things or do things in an effort to get people to think well of me. Maybe I’m the only one here who does these things, but somehow I doubt it.
Again, the approval and favor of others, in and of itself, is not bad thing. In fact, I believe that God made us to seek approval. We can’t help but desire to be accepted and included and loved. This desire is part of what it means to be human. Yes, God made us to desire approval but made us to desire approval ultimately from him. The favor of others is a good thing. The favor of God, however, is an ultimate thing.
This is one of the truths we see illustrated in the passage we just read from Luke 14. The scene here is a dinner party. Jesus has been invited along with others to the home of an important religious leader. In those days, these sorts of gatherings were structured around status. In Jesus’ world, just like in our world, reputation and social approval were highly coveted and they had venues set up where one’s status could be pursued and gauged.
In our world, Facebook is one such popular venue many people use to seek and gauge status and approval. It’s so obvious that we probably don’t even see it’s happening. Facebook makes public how many friends I have compared to how many friends you have. When people post things on their page it’s nearly always things that make them look good. And when I post something on my page how do you respond? Either you “like” my post or you “don’t like” my post. Usually others like what I’ve posted because I won’t post something if I didn’t think you’d like it. And even if you didn’t like it you probably wouldn’t tell me because you’re afraid that then I might not like you.
They didn’t have Facebook in Jesus’ day. They did, however, have dinner parties and these parties often served a similar purpose, to publicize and reinforce social status. Specifically, where you sat around the table at the dinner party, especially where you sat in relation to the host, said everything about your status. Seating assignments were public advertisements of what others thought of you. Even today we do this. Think of how the seating is often arranged in a junior high school cafeteria at lunch or at an important public function where celebrities or dignitaries are given the seats up front.
At this particular party Jesus did something that made others around the table immediately question his status. It was the Sabbath, a day when observant and faithful Jews refused to do any work whatsoever. Jesus, however, probably in an effort to intentionally stir up trouble, decides to heal a sick man right there in front of the group, an action what was absolutely forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus knew this dinner party was all a big game of status and so he decides to intentionally play a losing hand to reveal what he knows is in the hearts of his dinner companions.
Jesus tells a parable. When somebody invites you to dinner, he tells them, don’t immediately take the place of honor. Who knows, you might not be the most important person there and then your host is going to have to move you down the table in front of everybody and you’ll be publicly embarrassed as you get up to take the only place left at the end of the table. Instead, go immediately and sit in the lowest place. Then, there’s a good chance your host will see you there and insist you come sit in a better place. No doubt that will give the other dinner guests something to talk about!
We have to be careful here. On the surface it sounds like Jesus’ parable is reinforcing the desire of his dinner companions to attain human praise by simply offering a new strategy to obtain such praise. Start low and hope to be moved up instead of starting high and running the risk of being moved down. It’s not bad advice, actually, if human praise is your ultimate goal. Verse 11, however, makes clear that Jesus isn’t giving advice on improving your social standing but is, instead, telling us that human praise should never be what we’re after in the first place.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” he says, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” With Jesus’ words we begin to wonder if he’s really talking about a human dinner party thrown by a human host. In the following verses, in fact, verses which we didn’t read today, Jesus goes on to compare the Kingdom of God to a great banquet. It was a comparison he made often. Jesus himself, the Messiah, is the host of this heavenly banquet. What Jesus is teaching us here, therefore, is that in the Kingdom of God the person who seeks to elevate themselves is the person who will actually accomplish the opposite. It is the person who humbles himself, the one who puts others ahead of herself, who in the end will be elevated by the host. The message is actually quite clear. Don’t give your life to trying to elevate your status in this world. Humble yourself instead, and trust that in the end God will lift you up. After all, if you come to have a place of honor at the great banquet in the Kingdom of God, who cares what place you’re given at next Saturday’s dinner party!
In some ways, Jesus is telling us here that we should be prepared to accept rejection in this world, maybe even choose rejection in this world. It may be, in fact, that we need to experience worldly rejection to know that our lives do not depend upon worldly approval.
Ever since he began his rise to celebrity I feared for Justin Bieber. In fact, I think that celebrity was the worst thing that ever could have happened to this bright, talented young man. At such a young age he was put in a place where he was the object of the smothering adoration and praise of millions. How could this not be addicting? We should be very careful about how we mock or judge people like this, especially when they are placed in these positions by others when they are at such a young age. If I had received this level of celebrity and adoration when I was a teenager I can’t imagine I would have handled it any better than he has. Same is likely true of you.
Playwright Cynthia Heimel once wrote, “The minute a person becomes a celebrity is the same minute he or she becomes a monster. They had been once perfectly pleasant human beings…now they have become supreme beings and their wrath is awful.” Could it be that the best thing that could happen to somebody like Justin Bieber is for him at some point to find himself down at the very end of the table?
I heard this quote recently from a teacher named Mike Breen. He said, “You have to run out of the approval given to you by others so that you can [become desperate enough to] look into the face of the Father, knowing you failed, and hear His words that say, ‘I love you, and I’m proud of you.’ Because you know what? He says that every time. ‘I love you, and I’m proud of you.’ But usually we don’t come to hear these words until we’ve run out of the resources we usually rely on.”
That’s getting to the heart of it. Pay attention here. Given the choice, all of us would prefer to have the approval of those around us in this world. That’s natural. Nothing wrong with that. However, if we can get to the place where we can live with or without the approval of others, if we are willing to take the lowest place at the table, then in the end we will find that our deep-seated need for approval and status will not ultimately go unmet as we discover that we will receive it from the only One whose opinion of us really matters anyway. Humble yourself, make yourself the last of all, and you will be lifted up.
Only one problem. We can’t be this humble. None of us naturally will take the lowest place at the table. All of us, to some extent, worship at the altar of Pheme, longing for the approval we hope she might give us. We will, on our own, never take the lowest place. There is, however, one who did. When God came to this earth in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, God himself took the last place. Philippians 2 beautifully articulates what Christ did.
[He], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, NRSV)
Christ did what we in our weakness and self-centeredness could never do. Christ took the absolute lowest spot of humility and shame at the banquet table and because he did, the great Host of the banquet then raised him to the highest place of honor and glory. Because Jesus did this not only for us but as one of us, that means that humanity, in Christ, is raised as well to this place of honor and glory. All who trust in Christ share in the favor and approval that the Father has bestowed forever on the Son.
What this means is that the favor we have from God towards us is the best favor of all because it has nothing to do with us. The approval and love we receive from our Heavenly Father is, in no way, conditional on us being people who are worthy of approval and love. Do you see that? Christ died on the cross to forgive us our sins and was resurrected from the grave to life, which means that as we trust him he comes to literally live within us and among us so that the place he has attained from the Father is now the place that we, through him and in him, have attained as well. We find ourselves at the head of the great banquet table not because we have humbled ourselves but because he, in our place, has humbled himself and because we simply have placed our faith in him. When God looks at those who trust his Son, God sees in them his Son.
Think about it this way. We like to think that the good news of Christianity is that God accepts us just as we are. Right? Haven’t you been told that? God accepts you just as you are. But that’s not quite right. Every time I’ve ever heard somebody tell me that God accepts me just as I am I’ve always struggled to believe it because I know how I am and there’s an awful lot of me that is not acceptable, especially by a holy and righteous God.
Here’s the truth, and I want you to think about this very carefully. God never accepts me as I am. God accepts me as Jesus is. It is Christ, not me and not you, who is fully acceptable to the Father. And it is only because of what Christ has done for us that now, as Christ is in us through faith, we become acceptable to God. God does not accept me as I am but accepts me as I am in Jesus Christ. The difference may seem subtle but it is all the difference in the world.
Once you understand this you begin to see the astounding freedom of the Christian Gospel. One writer put it this way, “The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself.” That’s a really fancy way of saying that whenever we try to imagine that God accepts and loves us because we are, in any way, acceptable and lovable, then we make God’s acceptance and love about us. It’s not. It never about us. It’s always about Christ, who he is, what he has done, how he lives in us. No glory goes to us. It all goes to Jesus.
When we see this and believe this we find ourselves set free. Naturally, we will still prefer that other people in this world like us and accept us but no longer will their approval be the foundation of our identity, our security, or our meaning. Even if the whole world rejects me, there is One who accepts me and his acceptance has nothing whatsoever to do with me being acceptable but has, instead, everything to do with that fact that I have placed my faith in his fully-accepted Son and, in doing so, have come to live in Christ who in turn lives in the eternal favor of his Father.
In a few moments we will be invited to come to this table, the Lord’s Table. You are invited to come in freedom. You do not deserve to come. You’re not good enough to come, and neither am I. But that’s not the point, thankfully. It’s not about you and it’s not about me.
The host of this table, Christ himself, has invited you to come. As you come remember what he has done. Remember his body broken and his blood shed. Remember that through his death and resurrection he earned the first place in the Kingdom because he took the last place in the Kingdom. Above all, remember that by his grace, and through the faith you have in him, his place is now your place. Therefore, come without shame. Come without guilt. Come without worrying that there will be a place of favor at the table for you. In Christ, and because of Christ, there is and there always will be.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
What was the most ridiculous fashion choice you made to try to fit in when you were younger?
How important is it to you that people like and accept you? Is it a good thing to want other people to like you?
Can you think of a time recently when your desire to be accepted and liked made you do something you didn’t want to do or kept you from doing something you knew you should do?
Read Luke 14:1-11. Dinner parties in Jesus’ day were places where status was established and determined. What would be the equivalent in our day? Where is a place where you see people gauging each other’s status and position?
Here is Jesus’ punchline: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” What do you think Jesus is telling us here?
Can it ever be a good thing when we face rejection or have to live with the fact that we do not have the approval of some people?
In what way has approval become an idol for you? How are you seeking the favor of other people instead of seeking the favor of your Heavenly Father?
Consider this statement: “God never accepts me as I am. God accepts me as Jesus is.” What do you think this means? Do you agree?
Read Philippians 2:6-11. This is an ancient passage talking about Jesus. What do you think these words have to do with us?
 Informed by Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 550-552.
 I’m paraphrasing here in part from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
 Cited by Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Riverhead, 2009), 2.
 I’m indebted here to David Powlison and his excellent article, “Idols and the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 1995.
 David Powlison.