Trinity 17 2018

Trinity 17
September 23, 2018 A+D
St. Luke 14:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus rebukes us when He says: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He says this because He sees how we choose the seats of honor, how we long for recognition and praise. He knows that we exalt ourselves and covet for all sorts of things and relationships. He is not fooled by false humility or shows of piety or bravado. He knows how much we love ourselves for He knows the content of our daydreams, which might have points of imagined generosity for others but are mainly fantasies of wealth, fame, and insane luxuries.

Pride is a core sin. It is our purest idolatry. It is therefore in some ways tied to all our other sins. For left to ourselves in our fallen condition we love ourselves above all else and we think of little else.

This pride threatens daily to destroy our faith. And if we come to the wedding on the Last Day without that garment, without faith, we shall be cast into the outer darkness and be shamed in ways beyond all telling. Repent. This is not an idle threat. Humble yourself and wait for God to exalt you.

The opposite of exalting oneself is not debasing oneself. To some degree this was the error of the Medieval monastic orders. They thought they could impress God with outward poverty, humility, and chastity. This is also what drove Luther to flagellate himself for his many sins. He was trying to debase himself to appease God. Thus he denied the truth that God loved Him in Christ and was flagellated and crucified for him.

In Aristotle’s thinking the opposite of pride isn’t humility. It is timidity. If pride is thinking too much of oneself then the opposite error is thinking too little. For Aristotle the virtue that stood against that excess and deficiency was that a man think accurately about himself and, at the same time, act generously toward others. For Aristotle pride wasn’t an excess against humility but against magnanimity. To be magnanimous was to think accurately about one’s actual abilities without either inflating or deflating them and to be generous and think well of others. The sins of excess and deficiency that sat on either side of humility were shame and shamelessness, that is to be wrongly ashamed where one shouldn’t be or ashamed of good things on the one extreme and on the other hand to be shameless or to act in brazenly when one should be ashamed. To have the proper balance of shame, for Aristotle, was humility.

Aristotle is useful in helping us to see how many ways these things can go wrong and how we can overcorrect. The answer to pride isn’t debasement, either in thinking less of ourselves than we should or in being ashamed where we shouldn’t. But Jesus isn’t speaking about virtues and how to cultivate them. He is speaking of deeper truths and the spiritual reality that is behind all that is good and which is most necessary if we are to do more than stumble through this life in the least violent way possible. When Jesus says to humble yourself He is speaking of repentance and of salvation not only in this world but also in the next. He speaks not only of sanctification, how to behave and obtain the good life, but also of justification, how to be saved. The line between those things is more fluid then we have sometimes pretended. They are closely related because they both come by grace, in Word and Sacrament. In fact, there is no real separation between the two because neither ever exists without the other.

To this end, our Confessions quote Augustine: true repentance “means excising the causes of sin, that is, putting to death and restraining the flesh, not in order to pay for eternal punishments, but to keep the flesh from alluring us to sin.” So also they note that Gregory says that “repentance is false if it does not satisfy those whose property is taken. For the person who keeps on stealing does not truly regret that he has stolen or robbed. He is still a thief and a robber as long as he unjustly possesses someone else’s property. This civil restitution is necessary because it is written [in Ephesians 4 that] ‘thieves must give up stealing.’” Chrysostom is also quoted. He says “In the heart contrition, in the mouth confession, in works complete humility.” (Ap: art. vi, par. 71–73)

Good works ought to follow repentance. Part of what should follow is restitution or recompence made in humility. Repentance should be more than mere words of excuse or explanation and almost never needs the caveat that everyone fails. Repentance should a be change of one’s entire life for the better. This requires humility, being honest about who we are and what we’ve done and how selfish our fallen hearts are. This is what Jesus means by telling us to humble ourselves. Not only must we admit our sins and accept civil responsibility for them, but we must also confess that our lives need constant examination, constant effort to change, and that we are in need of God’s help. Along with this we need to believe and trust in God’s Word and promises. We didn’t make ourselves Christians or baptize ourselves. He did it. He not only died and rose for us but He also called us by the Gospel, baptized us into His Name, and beckons us to commune with Him in the Holy Supper. Humility knows that we belong to God.

Thus humility is not to simply debase oneself even as true repentance is not merely sorrow. True humility does requires confession of sin, but it also recognizes that we have been and are being humbled with a purpose. We are sinners whom God loves “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are still God’s children. The prodigal son went too far in his shame when he asked to be one his father’s slaves. He was a son and the father who eagerly waited and watched for him would have him no other way. We are His workmanship, not mere animals who can’t control themselves nor slaves obedient only to avoid punishment.

Even though Jesus was not talking directly about the virtue of humility here, it is in the background. We do well to consider what true humility is and how we might cultivate it. For true humility is not only sorrow over sin and a desire to do better but it is also confidence in God’s grace for Christ’s sake. It needs nothing from the world for it has all things by virtue of the cross. True humility is a quietness of the heart that rests in the Gospel. This is the fulfillment of the Sabbath in which Christ heals a man suffering dropsy: that Christian hearts rest confident in Christ. This is the rest to which the heavy laden, the baptized, are bidden. Humility then expects nothing in an earthly sense, yet it gratefully accepts what is given. To insist on unworthiness in the face of grace is to insult the Giver as much as to insist on what is owed when it isn’t. To be humble is to be at rest when nobody praises us and even when we are blamed or despised, and also to politely accept compliments and the goodness of this creation as gifts from God without boasting or insisting on attention and credit.[1]

The son wears the robe and ring that the father gives. He sits gladly at the table to feast alongside of his father in honor. True humility is content with what God gives and with God’s timing, both in times of prosperity and scarcity. It knows that we have a blessed home in the Lord, where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal and which is in no way subject to the fickleness or opinions of men. If Jesus lives than so shall we. If He rests from His labor on the cross, than so shall we. If He is praised by the holy angels and adored by His Father, than so are we. And if the abundant life means fat and marrow now, feasting and fat little babies and laughter, sobeit, and if it means persecution and degradation for the Name of Christ so that our salvation is worked out in us by suffering so be that. For humility needs no material gain or praise from men or honor in the workplace even though it does not shun those things if they are rightly given. Humility comes boldly to the Sacrament as sons who do not come at their own initiation but who have been told to come up higher.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord notes that faith itself is an act of humility. We confess that because of what Jesus says about His Body and Blood we should “in all humility and obedience . . .  simply believe the clear, firm, plain, and solemn words and command of our creator and redeemer, without any doubt or argument, whether it makes sense to our reason or is possible” (FC SD, art. vii, par. 46 in Kolb-Wengert).

Thus, the Lord Christ: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

[1] Part of this paragraph takes some wording and its ideas from the follow quote by Andrew Murray: “Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble” Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 570.  



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