“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” (Luke 14:7, NIV)
Sort of grabs your attention right from the start, doesn’t it? Definitely cringeworthy, probably because we each see that tendency in ourselves. For in order to look down on someone else, you have to have raised yourself above them at some point. The problem is that it’s usually a very subtle thing; we do it without even realizing it. That is until we are confronted with it in story form, then it’s easier to see.
So Jesus tells us a story. He wades into the dark places of the heart with the light of truth. He sets up a contrast that’s sure to get our attention and shake us up a little, if not a lot. On the one hand there is a Pharisee—religious, pious, wise, right, and sure—who challenges each of us to acknowledge and examine the state of our own hearts, minds, and souls. And on the other hand is the tax collector. A tax collector! Of all things! Jesus might as well have selected a scammer, a computer hacker, or a telemarketer. Tax collectors were the scum of the earth in those days, the lowest of the low, the lostest of the lost. And yet in this story, as is often the case with Jesus, the outcast is set up as the hero—the one who sees things as they truly are, rather than through the lenses of his own self-importance and self-righteousness.
And the point of the story? Simply that if you live your life trying to raise yourself up—trying to climb higher, in your own eyes or the eyes of others—you are setting yourself up for a fall. But if you recognize your desperate need for Jesus, and your inability to make things (anything really) “right” on your own, then there is good space within you for God to come in and fill you with his love and mercy.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:11, 18:14, NIV) Did you get that? Everyone who humbles himself. Not just everyone who gets humbled by life’s circumstances, but the one who humbles himself. Those two are very different. Humbling yourself calls for an active, ongoing process—the process of continually lowering ourselves.
The Greek word for exalt (hypsoō) means to elevate. Which is a wonderful and terrible word, especially in reference to something we are trying to do to ourselves. Jesus wants us to know clearly that everyone who tries to elevate himself will be humbled. And the Greek word translated humble in this passage (tapeinoō) means to bring low. Thus, if your life is about elevating yourself, you are in for a wild ride, but if your life is about bringing yourself low, then you are right where God wants you. There is actually room in your life for God to move and to work and to act.
So let us always remember that in the kingdom of God things are often backwards: less is more, small is big, low is high, and last is first. Only when we empty ourselves of self, can we possibly be made full. Lord, have mercy!