Go and sit in the lowest place;
so that when your host comes he may say to you,
“Friend, move up higher!”
We are moving in Trinity season through the stages of our sanctification in Christ. Another way of saying that is that we are maturing in our life in Christ.
The aim of our growth in Christ, is to come to know God, to see Him face to face. It is to enjoy Him forever. It is a state of being where we are thinking the thoughts of God and willing the will of God. And there is a rest in that – not an inactivity, but a real sense of unity with our true purpose. It is the Sabbath rest that Paul speaks of in Hebrews [3-4], something promised in the Old Covenant by God and fulfilled in the New Covenant in Christ.
Under the Law, God called on the people to take a day of rest where they would cease from their labours and remember God [Ex 20:10], on that day there was a doubling of the daily sacrifices offered in the Temple [Num 28:9f], it was a day for worship and for rest and recreation [Deut 5:14]. (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Sabbath, p.1433)
Just as we experience a real recreation when we rest at night and wake up in the morning (if our sleep has been sound), so in the week when we take a day of rest we are refreshed.
In the Jewish tradition the call to Sabbath rest was taken up by the Pharisees with ever strict rules about what you could and could not do (e.g. at the time of Maccabees some let themselves be killed rather than defend themselves when attacked on the Sabbath, [1 Macc 2:32-38]). But Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath day of rest was not about pleasing God with our strictness, but rather about the restoring of the soul, about healing humanity. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath [St Matt 12:1-8] – God wants our health, he has not given this law so that he might somehow be satisfied by our careful observance of it.
So in this morning’s Gospel [St Luke 14:1-11], when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath day in front of the Pharisees, he was reminding them about what the Sabbath is about – restoration and healing. And they should not find fault with him for doing precisely this. And he appeals to their reason – if your animal fell in a pit on the Sabbath you would pull him out – how much more should you help another person, a rational animal made in the image and likeness of God, on the Sabbath day?
How do we do it? How do we enter into God’s rest?
The whole first part of Trinity season has been about this preparation leading us to this point.
- There must be a purging of the passions of the soul – our emotions, the thoughts our hearts, our desires – so long as we are seeking worldly ends and sinful desire we find ourselves restless, never satisfied, moving further away rather than towards our authentic selves made in the image and likeness of God – when we die to these, crucify the flesh, we are ready to rise up in Christ, not before, there is no getting around this. [Trinity 3-9]
- Then the soul must be adorned with virtue – with grace from above within us, the Holy Spirit, redirecting our desire to its true ends – the love of God and the love of our neighbour. The more we respond to that grace given, the more we experience the resurrection life. [Trinity 10-16]
This was the content of our readings to this point. When we have followed that council to die to sin and when we have risen by seeking the virtuous life, we are ready to enter into God’s rest. We could say it is about our ascension into the life of heaven.
As with the earlier stages of our growth in Christ, humility was at the centre, and even so is humility required at this stage.
After the healing in today’s Gospel, Jesus notices how all those who had gathered at the home of the Pharisee for supper had been vying for the best seat at the table – since where you sat at the table in those days, implied who was more highly esteemed. Each of them wanted glory in the eyes of the other. Jesus uses the moment to tell them how things work when it comes to attaining the glory that comes from God. He doesn’t criticize their desire for glory, but tells them how to attain it.
Sit in the lowest place and wait to be asked, Friend, go up higher.
But in this parable Jesus is not really speaking about seating arrangements at an earthly feast, but about the desire to enter into God’s rest – about feasting in the Kingdom of Heaven. At the point that we have finished cooperating with the grace of God to experience the purging of our passions and have had our souls adorned with grace from above so that we are thinking the thoughts of God and willing his will, we are ready to be lifted ever higher into the life of God. At that point, we cannot force God’s hand, we need to “seat ourselves in the lowest place”, that is, in an attitude of waiting for God to raise us up.
Humility is the prerequisite to continue in any kind learning, and especially in our life in God
- if we think we know it all, we will not be in a position to continue to learn, and especially to grow in the thoughts of God.
- if in prayer it seems God is silent, we must wait for insight, for a word from above, we cannot force Him to speak, force our ascent
But true humility before God is not something easy to see in ourselves – we might know the concept, and speak all the right words that sound humble, but to be truly humble is a gift of God. In the Epistle [Ephesians 4:1-6], we are reminded by St Paul that we can understand humility more plainly in our relations with other people – that will help us prepare our souls. True humility forebears with others, is meek before others, seeks peace in the body of Christ, the Church, not division. If we find ourselves continually in contention with those around us, it may be a sign we need to humble ourselves.
But true humility does not include allowing other people to walk on you – Paul shows this amply in his letters where he is very clear when people are attacking him unfairly – he condemns them and calls them to repentance.
Humility before God and humility before our neighbour. Strangely, they are, very much alike (as are the two great Commandments) – because we believe those who are baptised in Christ, are bearers of His Spirit, dwelling in their hearts, that the image and likeness of God is being restored also in them. And in the same way that we cannot force but must wait for God to lift us into a deeper communion and fellowship, we cannot force, but must wait for our neighbours to invite us into a deeper communion and fellowship with them, to “go up higher” in a sense, closer. We know this in our relation with spouses or with good friends.
But in this very patient waiting, and forbearing, we are being changed, healed, made humble and ready for a showing, a revealing, of beauty beyond our imagining in the other and in God.
This morning there are some things we don’t need to wait for: we do not need to wait to be healed of the guilt of sin, or to be healed in our souls of the effects of sin – Jesus has offered himself once for all to heal us of these things – and we can receive the benefits of that healing today, on this our Sabbath, as we partake of his Body and his Blood.
But there is a waiting that we are called to, as we return from the altar today: of course a waiting for Jesus’ return in glory, but also a waiting in expectation of our being lifted to glory, and even in this life. And it requires a humility before God and before our neighbour to experience it, a humble waiting for a word from our Lord or from our neighbour, “Friend, go up higher.” Let us be ready to hear it, and when we hear it, to joyfully act upon it.