Text: Luke 14:1-14
Proper 17, C
Dr. Suess once wrote a story of a turtle named Yertle. It seems that Yertle was unsettled in the lot to which life had cast him. King of his little pond just wasn't enough, so one day he decided that if he were ruler of all that he could see, he must get up higher and see more. He called to ten of the turtles in his pond and had them make a stack of subjects for him to climb upon. Now he was ruler not just of the pond but also a horse, a cow, a farm and a cat. Indifferent to the mumbling and groaning of his burdened subjects he calls for the stack to be built higher still. His pride knew no bounds. Even at two hundred turtles high, it wasn't enough, for there was always something else just out of reach.
So great was his indifference, his pride and his selfishness that he calls for the stack to be increased to 5,607 ... just enough to reach into heaven. He will literally bear himself up on the back of every turtle in the world if it would help him reach his goal. But then the lowliest turtle in the stack, named Mack, burps and all the great plans of Yertle the turtle come resoundingly, crashing down. So Yertle the Turtle, is king no more ... except maybe king of the mud.
This world is full of Yertles. People who will rarely stop to think twice at how they use others for their own selfish ends. People who are full of pride and scorn. People who are indifferent to the plight of anyone but themselves. We need look no further than our Gospel reading for today to see three such examples.
“One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not? But they remained silent.” Do you see the callous indifference to the plight of this man? Dropsy is a disease that leaves its victims grotesquely disfigured (and ritually unclean!) Here is a man used to being shunned and reviled, yet not one of the pharisees present say a word. Some have even speculated that they allowed him to be there so they could use him as a free ticket to catch Jesus in His anti-sabbath teachings. There is no compassion for his plight, just the desire to use his suffering for their own agenda. And when Jesus takes the bait (he was right there in front of him at the table after all), they hold their tongues in eager anticipation.
And yet, where these religious leaders show such an appalling indifference to this unnamed fellow, Jesus shows a remarkable compassion. “Then He took him and healed him and sent him away. And He said to them, Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out? And they could not reply to these things.” Jesus heals him, Sabbath or not, and then sends him on his way. He has been embarrassed enough and Jesus will not let him be used further. Any more discussion Jesus will do with the pharisees alone. And the conviction of His compassion quells any contention. Where once they chose to be silent in the face of His question, now they are stymied by His compassion. Jesus will not be used for their misguided ends.
But that is not the only place we see people using people. “Now [Jesus] told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, 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.” See the pride and ambition as one guest after another scrambles for a free ride off the host. Seeking out honour and respect, name-dropping and making connections. Riding on the coat-tails of greater men, in order to get their little piece of recognition.
And then the greatest one of all speaks up and says “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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” To seek out honour for one's self is a mine field of shame and embarrassment just waiting to happen. His point is clear ... sadly, no one is nearly so great or as important as they think they are and certainly even less than what they think we should be! Even the greatest turtle in the pond is still just a turtle after all. Jesus will not be used to bolster another's pride.
And the guests are not alone in their guilt for we see the host himself falling prey to such ideas: “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 neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.” Did you catch the selfish ends this time? Even the very act of giving can be done for selfish motives ... like what will be received in return. It’s a question of being owed, being able to call in favours. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Even a generous host is not above using his guests as a means to a later free lunch.
And lest we be tempted to use other's short-comings as a way of inflating our own importance, let it be said right here and now that where pharisee, and guest and host alike stumble and need correction, so too do you and me. For we are still dogged by indifference, pride, and selfishness. How often do we see the people of this world, even the people of the Georgian Triangle, hurting, suffering, being used for the agendas of others, and yet write it off as something beyond our control ... something they’ve done to themselves ... something minor in the great scheme of heaven and hell. We too are not nearly compassionate enough.
How often do we Christians ride the coat-tails of our religious tradition or standing to make ourselves seem better or more reliable than we are. We are so very kind and generous, pillars of charity and the hard-work ethic after all. We are just as likely to compare good works, measure giving and calculate attendance records to decide who gets the place of honour in the annals of Christ Our Hope. Sometimes we use church to even indulge in a little name dropping and networking. No, we too are not nearly humble enough either.
And we have never worked really hard at something (say like a VBS or other outreach activities) and come out the other end feeling disappointed because we saw no return on our investment have we? We've never been tempted to judge the merits of what we do based on the potential of how many new members we might see from it, right? We don't have a tendency to give to those projects and funds in the church that will benefit us directly in some way over and above those that are obviously targeted at someone else ... do we? No, we too are not nearly as charitable as we should be, or as we could be.
Why do we so often struggle to be as compassionate, humble and charitable as we know we should be? Because the old sinful nature is like a little Yertle the Turtle in each and every one of us. Because honour is more inviting than shame. Because indifference, pride and selfishness are easy while real compassion, humility and charity mean sacrifice. And they don't earn you anything either! No amount of humility can merit you God's grace. No amount of charity will earn you a favour or some pay-back before God. Because no one likes being used by others.
But then, that's not quite true is it? For there is indeed one who all through this has been the epitome of compassion, humility and charity. There is one who sets the feast of Heaven itself, a feast comprised of his own Body and Blood, and invites only the unworthy to attend. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” He expects no payment. He is not looking for anything in return. Just that we would come and eat and live.
There is one who, even though He was the rightfully exalted Son of God, humbled himself to become the son of a lowly handmaid. One for whom the only place to be born was outside, laid in the trough of beasts. There is one who worked so selflessly, that suffering crucifixion and death on a cross was not beyond his consideration. Not if it served those he had come to rescue. There is one, who though the author of life, consented to death and burial in a tomb.
There is one who by willingly being used like this, brought about a righteousness, a justification and a resurrection for you and me. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And so on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, having proclaimed his victory in the heart of hell. He was exalted as he returned to heaven, and his rightful place as ruler and judge over all creation. A creation he paid for in flesh and blood. And yet the one who once humbled himself in all compassion and charity, spends the days of his exaltation, no less compassionate or charitable. For even now he rules over all things for the sake of his beloved. He will sit in judgment for the sake of those he has redeemed. He will return one day in glory to gather up even Yertle's like you and me.
And when he comes to gather us selfish, prideful, indifferent people up to be seated at his heavenly banquet table, all our shame will be wiped away. He will call us up from our lives of shame and failure to the place set aside for us in our Baptisms. And He will do it in front of the whole world. It will be an honour just to be invited to the table, and no one will care where you used to sit, only that you are there now.
And it is precisely because this great honour awaits us at the table of the one who was willing to be used on our behalf, that we are now able to swallow our pride, put selfish desires behind us and do unto others not as we want done in return, but simply as they have need. In Christ who died and rose for us, who will come again to gather us to him, we have the ability to be compassionate, humble and charitable knowing that “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Knowing that all God has promised in His Son is already ours, and will be forever.