Less is More

Scripture:  Luke 14:7-14

It is not hard to find stories of celebrities and people with some level of fame acting badly.   Honestly, we kind of except it, don’t we?   We expect people with money and recognition to be able to get away with pulling a “Don’t you know who I am?” and then getting the preferential treatment they believe they are entitled to.   Sometimes it seems that either fame attracts a certain type of person or it changes them.   Of course not every actor, sports star, or national leader is insufferable.  There are no doubt plenty or are still down to earth people despite their success and fame.   It is just a lot harder to find those stories, because the genuine ones are not trying to broadcast on social media how good they are.  However, there is one celebrity that has had dozens of stories leak out about his good deeds, not because he has shared them but rather the people he has helped do.  All of these kind actions have earned him the reputation of the nicest guy in Hollywood, and that guy is Keanu Reeves.

He is best known for action movies such as the John Wick franchise.  Despite having a net worth in the millions, he lives in an apartment not a mansion.   It is also well documented that he is not above taking public transportation.   Keanu Reeves was also in the Matrix movies, and he gave a large portion of what he was paid in those movies to the special effects workers because he felt they were not getting paid enough for the work they did in the films.   While he gives millions to fund treatment for cancer research, his kindness goes beyond money.   One story of Keanu Reeves involves a plane that had to be grounded before reaching Los Angeles because of a mechanical issue.  It turns out that Keanu Reeves was on that flight.  The airline arranged bus transportation for the passengers to get them to the airport.  Instead of using his resources to and fame to get preferential treatment or arrange alternate transport, Reeves waited along with everyone else.  It was also reported that his interaction with people went along way to keeping the general group temperature low and prevent tempers from flaring.   On the screen Keanu Reeves tends to play violent action heroes.  Once an interviewer asked him about the contrast between the types of roles he played compared to his nice guy reputation.  In response Reeves said, “I don’t want to be part of a world where being kind is a weakness.”

For some fame and fortune are no doubt corrupting influences.  For Keanu Reeves at least, it seems one of the primary ways he has avoided that influence is by choosing kindness.  I think we find a similar message in this morning’s scripture.  In this morning’s scripture Jesus tries to get people to focus less on themselves and more on others.  In this morning’s scripture we find Jesus encouraging people to choose kindness.

This morning’s scripture beings in the middle.   Verse 1 of chapter 14 tells us that Jesus had been invited to a prominent Pharisee’s house.  It seems this was not a private dinner, but rather a social affair with multiple guests.  We pick the scripture up with Jesus observing people picking their seats.   On the surface level we can appreciate what is going on here.  It is easy for us to imagine a certain kind of person who is very concerned with getting the best seat.  However, there is a bit more going on under the surface that may not be readily apparent to us.  The Middle Eastern culture of the first century was one that was completely defined by the concepts of honor and shame.   Honor was an invisible cultural currency.  It was understood and culturally assumed that the more honor one had the more respect and deference was to be automatically given to them.  This culture was full of social rules that would garner people more honor and taboos that, if broken, would bring shame and cause people to lose honor.   It was impossible to put a numeric amount on how much honor someone had, but everyone in this era had a decent idea of how much honor they had in comparison to other people.   Measuring each other up and qualifying one’s level of honor is the dynamic that is at play in this morning’s scripture.

In this honor and shame culture it was the tradition that the person of highest honor would have the best seat.  The person with the second most honor, would be to this person’s right, the third most respected to the left.   It would go on like this back and forth as people took their seats.  When it was all said and done people would be sitting in ranking of honor, and everyone gathered knew it.  As Jesus was observing people taking seats, he was observing people measuring up everyone else in the room.  He was watching people trying to see just how good of a seat they could grasp, how much honor they could claim to have compared to everyone else without getting called out on it.

In response to this Jesus offers up two teachings.   First, he offers a piece of practical advice on being humble, but it went a bit against the way thing were normally done. The normal course of events was to focus on how one presented oneself.  Remember honor was mostly invisible.  Outward signs of success were viewed as evidence of honor, so presenting those were important.   If one wanted to be viewed as honorable as possible, then it was a necessity to be focused on oneself.  It was essential to be focused on one carried themselves, presented themselves, followed all protocol, and compared to others.   It honestly sounds exhausting, and Jesus offered a better way.       Jesus observed people claiming and fighting for position, essentially bragging by virtue of the seat they claimed how honorable they are.  However, Jesus urged them not to play that game.   He urged them not to get caught up in keeping up appearances.   Jesus pointed out instead of seeking to build oneself up, we should live authentically and when we do others will notice our virtues.  I have always appreciated how C.S. Lewis defined humility.  He wrote, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”   This is largely what Jesus was advocating for.  Jesus was not suggesting that the people believe they are worth less honor, instead he was advocating they take all of their focus and attention off of where they think they rank.

The next teaching Jesus offered up is where people should be putting their focus instead, and this completely turns social convention on its head.   When someone held a banquet for any reason, one of the ways they increased their own personal honor was to invite the honorable.   Extending hospitality was in some ways a social contract as Jesus points out in verse 12 when he states “do not invite your friends.  . .your relatives or your rich neighbors; if you do they may invite you back and you will be repaid.”  Instead Jesus advocates inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.   Jesus advocates inviting the people who were culturally devoid of honor and were full of shame.  In the culture of the day doing this would honor those outcast and on the margins, because the host would literally be giving their honor away by inviting them.    It was the socially acceptable thing at the time to do all one good to build up their status and personal honor, but Jesus advocated that instead of hoarding honor and privilege it should be given away through having compassion on the least of these.   Jesus was advocating that instead of focusing on how to gain honor for themselves, people should instead put their focus on others.

This morning’s scripture is set in a cultural setting that highly values the concepts of honor and shame.  This morning’s scripture is in many ways a critique of the dark side of holding those values.  Even though we are in a radically different cultural context, I think we can learn very similar lessons from what Jesus was trying to teach in this morning’s scripture.  Just like it did for the original audience, in this morning’s scripture Jesus can teach us how to be more humble.

Jesus was first trying to get his audience to stop thinking of themselves and their honor first.  Much of how one viewed themselves was derived from how much honor they thought other people perceived them to have.   Jesus observed the guest trying to get the highest seat possible because they wanted to be perceived with as much honor as possible.   We may not be jockeying for position of the highest honor, but we still have the unfortunate habit of letting how we think others perceive us have too much influence on what we think of ourselves.  We still tend to worry too much about how we rank with those around us.   Just like in Jesus’ day this constant comparison and constantly dwelling on what others think of us, tends to cause us to put too much thought on ourselves.   If humility is thinking about ourselves less, then a starting point needs to be not finding our worth in what other’s think about us.   Our honor our sense of worth should come from a higher source.

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us exactly what God thinks of us.  In Romans 5:6-8 Paul wrote, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own for us in this: While were still sinners Christ died for us.”  God has clearly shown the value we have to God, and that is where our worth should come from.  We do not need to worry about where we rank at the table of honor, because we know that we have a seat reserved at God’s heavenly banquet.  I really appreciate how it stated in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.  There it states, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”   Our honor or our value is not determined by the opinions of others, our value is sacred.  When we stop trying to earn the approval of others because we know we already have God’s approval it becomes a lot easier to focus on ourselves less.

Recognizing our worth comes from God thinks of us and not what people think, is only one part of being more humble.  In his book Lead Like Wesley, Wesleyan pastor Mark Gorveatte pointed this out when he wrote, “Find your sense of worth in the love of Christ not in the approval of others.  The best way to develop humility is to keep your focus on loving God and serving others.”  Serving others is the second ingredient to being more humble.  If the stories about him are true, then this is what has kept Keanu Reeves so well grounded.  Like him, we can view kindness as a strength, and we can choose kindness.  When we choose kindness, we are choosing to focus on someone else.  If our focus is on others, then by default it is not on ourselves.  In this morning’s scripture Jesus recommends exactly who we should be kind towards.

Jesus told his host when he holds a banquet he should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  In the culture of the day, these were the people considered to have the least honor.  They were the people least likely to be invited to the banquet.  Friends, we do hold a banquet regularly.   We gather at the table of Christ for a most holy meal.   Like Jesus states in this morning scripture, when we host this banquet we should be throwing doors wide open and inviting the people who normally do not feel invited.  We should be welcoming in not just the people Jesus mentioned but the addicted, the complicated, the people who we do not see eye to eye with, or live a lifestyle we may not agree with.  Not only should we be welcoming in then, but we should be inviting them in.   Our communion liturgy says it best, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, and who earnestly repent of their sin.”  That is the only qualifier.   It does not say that Christ invites only those who have their lives together, it does not say Christ invites only those who are willing to help themselves, and it does not say Christ invites only those who live a certain way.   The only real qualification is love Jesus.  There is no jockeying for position at Christ table, because all who gather there are sinners in need of grace.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.   There is no seat of higher honor because we all have sacred worth.   The table is open, and there is always room to add one more.

So may we choose kindness.   May we think of ourselves less, because we find out worth in how God thinks of us and we seek to serve others.   May we have the same humble mindset that Jesus shows puts forth in this morning’s scripture.  May choosing kindness lead us to reaching outside of our walls and even our normal comfort zone.  May we strive to be a place that when someone hears the words “Christ invites to his table all who love them,” they know that invitation includes them, because they have already experienced that everyone is welcomed and invited here.   May we truly be a place that is defined by the fact that everyone, is welcomed here without qualification or reservation and may we celebrate that the invitation to the table is open to all.

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