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The Best Seat in the House
Luke 14:7-11
By Dave Redick*

 
This sermon is a featured sermon of a friend of mine.
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Sammy Morris was a Christian from Africa who came to the U.S. to go to school. The road he chose for himself was a tough one, but he never let it stop him from making progress. When he arrived at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, the school’s principal asked him what room he wanted. Sammy said simply, "If there is a room nobody wants, give it to me." Later the president commented, "I turned away with my eyes full of tears. I was asking myself whether I was willing to take what nobody else wanted."

Introduction

It is human nature to want to sit in the best seat in the house.

At sporting events it’s the skybox seat, or the seat on the fifty-yard line or the seat directly behind home plate. These places command the best view and the highest price. They also carry the greatest bragging potential. ("I have bottom deck, front row seats to tonight’s Blazer/Bulls game!" "Wow! How’d you get so lucky?")

This desire for the best seat in the house shows up in many places. Watch people in a parking lot sometime. The best parking places are usually the ones closest to the front door. I’ve seen people nearly collide, competing for that one open spot near the door! The spaces way out on the other end of the lot are seldom taken unless the lot is full or employees are required to park in them.

At a concert, the best seat in the house is probably the one closest to the musicians. Maybe and even better one might be a backstage seat where you get to meet the performers.

When you have a guest to your house and invite them to sit down, don’t you give them the best seat? If one of your kids is sitting there, you ask him to move.

What do you suppose is the best seat in the church building? The back seat, of course! I know that because it’s the one that fills up first. We never have to hang "reserved" signs on the front benches. Why? Maybe because it’s the farthest seat from the preacher.

Diplomatic negotiating teams spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars and many hours getting the seating just right so that visiting dignitaries are afforded proper honor by the placement of their chairs. A slip here can mean that countries go to war.

I seem to remember two disciples of Jesus named James and John getting into this "best seat" thing when Jesus asked them in Mark 10:36-37, "What do you want Me to do for you?" And they said to Him, "Grant that we may sit in Your glory, one on Your right, and one on Your left." They wanted the best seats in the kingdom - the places of honor and prestige. It’s a natural thing for the natural man.

Jesus had some specific things to say about the best seat in the house, and it’s what I want to consider with you in this message. Turn in your Bibles, please, to Luke 14:7-11.

Let me set things up for the incident described here. According to verse 1, Jesus had come by invitation to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath for a meal. It was one of those dinners attended by the religious "who’s who" locally among the sect of the Pharisees. When He arrived, He found one of the guests was a man who had a condition the Bible calls "dropsy." According to Nelson’s Bible Dictionary, this was an abnormal accumulation of serous fluid in the body’s connective tissue. It caused terrible, painful swelling in the body of its victim.

The man was probably invited so the Pharisees could put Jesus to the test, but Luke doesn’t actually say that. Over their known objections regarding healing on the Sabbath, Jesus cured the man. Though I’m sure some of them might have liked to challenge Him as to His "right" to heal on the Sabbath, they all kept quiet, perhaps only verifying to themselves what they had already heard - that this rabbi violated their traditions. Then as things began to settle down and the guests made their way to the table, Jesus noticed there was some jockeying for position going on at the head table. The places of honor were quickly filling up. Probably the places of greatest honor in that day would be those closest to the host. Jesus, ever busy explaining the Father’s attitude about things like this, could not let this one get by. That is what I’m going to read to you.

(Read Luke 14:7-11)

You probably recognize with me that what Jesus is teaching here is the opposite of nearly everything we hear today about success. It is not easy advice easy to take, because according to Jesus,

1. The Best Seat in the House is the Last Seat.

Verse 10 says, "But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place…"

I think it’s fairly obvious that Jesus had more in mind here than seating arrangements at weddings. Luke tells us in verse 7 that this was a parable. The lesson of the parable is in verse 11 where it says, "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

If you want to force yourself into the first seat, you’ll be humbled. If you willingly take the last seat, you’ll be exalted. Oh, how that goes against the grain of our culture!

I don’t remember who said it, but I do remember the quote. I think it was a prominent sports figure who said: "Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing."

In other words, being first is so important to some that it becomes the only thing they will settle for. Nothing else is acceptable. Everything else is disgraceful. I hope you understand that such a philosophy, while it might be useful in sports, chokes on Jesus’ words here. It chokes primarily on the means. Elsewhere, in Mark 9:35, Jesus said,

"If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all."
Doesn’t sound much like a winning formula, does it? You probably wouldn’t find it listed in the "Ten Most Important Habits of Successful People." Do we see the difference in means? Our sports figure says, "go for first!" Our Lord says, "go for last." Both are telling us how to get to the top, but the difference of means is like night and day.

Sammy Morris was a Christian from Africa who came to the U.S. to go to school. The road he chose for himself was a tough one, but he never let it stop him from making progress. When he arrived at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, the school’s principal asked him what room he wanted. Sammy said simply, "If there is a room nobody wants, give it to me." Later the president commented, "I turned away with my eyes full of tears. I was asking myself whether I was willing to take what nobody else wanted."

"Recline at the last place," Jesus said. Then, when you’re asked to move up, it will be an honor.

The best seat in the house, according to Jesus, is the last seat. Also,

2. The Best Seat in the House is the Least Desired Seat.

We don’t find Jesus making a comment about competition for the seats with less honor associated - the ones left when they had all been picked over. This teaching really is different than the way we think, isn’t it?

I was at the market the other day and I wanted some tomatoes. Never mind the fact that they were priced higher than I wanted to pay. I went to the bin and there I found just a few bruised, shriveled up, "hard-ball" specimens. Obviously, the bin had already been picked over. I left without buying them. I wasn’t going to eat those!

That attitude might not be bad when it comes to shopping for vegetables, but in other contexts, it amounts to arrogance. It says, "I’m too good for that!"

During the American Revolution an officer in civilian clothes rode past a group of new recruits busy repairing a break in a rampart. The work was really too heavy for the size of group working on it. Their commander was shouting instructions, but was making no attempt to help them. Asked why, he replied with great dignity, "Sir, I am a Corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers himself. When the job was finished, he turned to the corporal and said "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this, and not enough men to do it, go to your commander in chief, and I will come and help you again." The officer in plain clothes was General Washington.

Most men think like that Corporal. They don’t want to humble themselves. Like the guests at the wedding feast Jesus is describing, they want to emphasize their rank over others and be noticed for it. They want to push themselves as high as they can, even if it means stepping on others to do it. It’s the law of the jungle. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s eat or be eaten. But it’s not what Jesus is teaching here.

One of the reasons we shy away from humility and don’t want to take the last seat is that we fear humiliation. We’re afraid they might find out what we are really like and think less of us.

This letter to Ann Landers demonstrates how fearful people are of being humiliated and embarrassed by association with common things:

Dear Ann Landers:

I read an item in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE recently that stunned me. It said the most frequently shoplifted item in America's drugstores is Preparation H. I never would have guessed it. 1

We cannot admit that we have the same problems as other people! They might think less of us! Apparently many would rather steal than be humiliated by going through the check stand with such a basic item.

That’s a great comment on human nature, isn’t it?

Why is this lesson of Jesus so hard to take? It is hard because,

3. The Best Seat in the House is the Learning Seat.

Most of us would rather take a shortcut to the top. The trouble with that is that, if we do, we avoid all of life’s lessons along the way. We want the graduating tassel without the necessary hassle. The trip from the bottom, through the school of hard knocks and common tasks, isn’t desired.

I remember hearing of a Christian organization that always asks newly hired people to clean the toilets for two weeks. It doesn’t matter what their qualifications or what they are hired for. That’s the first job they get. If they won’t do it, they don’t get a position.

Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s Restaurant chain, illustrates the learning value of humility in his book WELL DONE: THE COMMON GUY’S GUIDE TO EVERYDAY SUCCESS. He writes, "I got my MBA long before my G.E.D." (Dave, of course, never graduated from high school.) He continues, "I even have a photograph of me in my MBA graduation outfit -- a snazzy knee-length work apron. I guarantee you that I'm the only founder among America's big companies whose picture in the corporate annual report shows him wielding a mop and a plastic bucket. That wasn't a gag" he continues. "It was a case of leading by example. At Wendy's, MBA does not mean Master of Business Administration. It means Mop Bucket Attitude. It's how we define satisfying the customer through cleanliness, quality food, friendly service, and atmosphere." 2

O, that we could find more of that MBA attitude in the church!

No, you don’t necessarily have to wield a physical mop to show you have it. There are plenty of other things that will get you your MBA.

There’s a widow or divorcee over there with five little kids. She’s going nuts trying to be both mom and dad. Want to get your spiritual MBA? Go over there and help her with one or two of the kids. You older saints who already have your kids raised, I’m talking to you, too! I know the tendency is for you to say, "I raised mine. Let them raise theirs! I’m retired." You may be retired from your job, but you’re not retired from the Lord’s work, are you? Of course not! Go spend your Saturdays with one of those kids for the next three years. Be a mentor to him/her.

There’s an elderly person who cannot get around anymore. He’s lonely and distraught. Want to get your MBA? Go over and spend the day with him. Let him talk. Talk to him. Do it once or twice a month.

People often come to me and say, "I want to do something in the church." I admire that attitude. We need more of it. But is it necessary to come to me to find something to do? Look around you. What needs "mopping?" Figure it out and go do it. If you can’t find anything, perhaps you’re not looking low enough! Sometimes it looks like there is nothing to do in the church because we only want to do things that get recognized by others. Are we any different than those jockeying for seats in Jesus’ parable?

Humble yourself and be exalted. Exalt yourself and be humbled.

A young seminary graduate came up to the pulpit, very self confident and smug. He was immaculately dressed. He knew he had what it took. He began to deliver his first sermon to his first church but when he started to speak, the words simply wouldn’t come out. Humiliated, he burst into tears and ended up leaving the platform, obviously humbled. There were two old ladies sitting in the front row and one remarked to the other, "If he'd come in like he went out, he would have gone out like he came in."

"For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Start humbly. God will move you up. Start arrogantly. God will move you down. The best seat in the house is the learning seat. Go get your spiritual MBA!

I must say something else in all this. I must tell you that,

4. The Best Seat in the House is not The Lazy Seat.

Whales really do communicate with each other. I know that because one day a whale sounded the following caution to his mate in whines and clicks: "Better watch it; when you get to the top and start to blow, that's when you get harpooned!"

In all this, it might be tempting to some to say, "Well, Jesus is saying that climbing the ladder of success is not what I’m supposed to do, then I’ll just settle back and sit on the bottom and never aspire to be all I can be.

That kind of laziness is not what Jesus is teaching here. He isn’t condemning progress or moving up. He’s teaching against our natural tendencies toward arrogance and making out like we’re more than we really are.

Paul said in Romans 12:3,

"I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment…"
There is nothing wrong with working hard to move up. Just let others do the promoting. Don’t do it yourself. Let your works speak well of you, not your mouth. The idea is that the host of the party sees your hard and humble work, comes to you, and says, what Jesus said in verse 10: "Friend, move up higher."

No, Jesus isn’t condoning laziness here. This isn’t a verse for slackers. It isn’t a call to become a bottom feeder if God designed you to be a whale.

Remember the parable of the talents? Remember the one talent man, who was afraid to take any risks and went out and buried his talents in the ground? ("Oh, my, if I get to the top, I might get harpooned!") Do you remember the verdict on him?

Matthew 25:26-27 says,

"You wicked, lazy slave…you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest."
God wants us to get a return on what we’ve been given. This passage in Luke isn’t condoning laziness or lack on initiative. It’s speaking of our means of progress. Want to go to the top? Head for the bottom!

You see starting at the bottom allows us to progress naturally, at the speed of our true abilities. Starting at the top puts us into a position where we must constantly try to be what we are not by lying and deceit and misrepresentation and the humiliation of others. We fight for our seat rather than waiting to be seated by the host.

Finally, I must tell you that,

5. The Best Seat in the House is the Lord’s Seat.

Luke doesn’t mention it here, but where do you suppose Jesus was sitting as he was telling this parable? I guarantee you he wasn’t in the middle of those pushing each other to get the best seats. That wasn’t His way!

A certain Scottish Christian man, who was a successful businessman, had one son. He was very proud of this boy. Outwardly, the boy was well mannered, well educated, and respected - at least he was until he left home. Once away from his father’s guidance, he turned his back on his upbringing. He indulged in every kind of excess he could think of, sowing his "wild oats" with all the gusto he could muster --until one day he was arrested for embezzlement. At the trial he was found guilty. All through the proceedings, and even up through the jury foreman’s reading of the verdict, the young man appeared essentially unconcerned, arrogant, and nonchalant. No one was going to humiliate him!

When the verdict was brought in, the judge told the young man to stand for the sentence. He arrogantly stood, still looking cocky and proud. With a haughty glance, he looked around the courtroom. That’s when he saw his dad, whom he hadn’t seen for several years. The old man had stood and moved to the front!

When the younger man looked at his dad, he saw a man who had once stood with head and shoulders erect. Now those same shoulders were bowed low with sorrow and shame as he stood to receive, as though it were for himself, his son's sentence from the judge. At the sight of his father, bent and humiliated because of his disgraceful conduct, the son finally began to weep bitterly and for the first time repented of his crime. 3

For the Christian, this is what happens when, in our arrogance and self importance, we suddenly get a glimpse of Jesus, the Son of God, taking the humiliation we should be feeling ourselves, upon Himself. That picture, more than any other, lets the air out of our arrogance.

Philippians 2:3- 8 says,

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;

4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

We take the humble seat as the best seat in the house because it’s our Lord’s seat! He showed us the way by willingly heading to the bottom of society’s ladder, to the place of a criminal, to death on a cross, hanging naked and falsely accused before all who watched, though he did nothing wrong. And He did it on our behalf. Because He humbled Himself, God has now exalted Him.

Conclusion

John Brodie, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was once asked why a million-dollar player like him should have to hold the ball for field goals and extra points after the touchdown. "Well," said Brodie, "if I didn't, it would fall over."

Brodie wouldn’t take the bait. He wouldn’t exalt himself, though the opportunity was obvious. Maybe that has something to do with his greatness.

I don’t care which image you leave here with this morning:

The C.E.O. with a mop and plastic bucket in his hand…

The quarterback on his hands and knees holding the ball for the kicker…

The African student, willing to take the room no one else wanted…

The Lord of Glory submitting Himself to cruel and vulgar men to be put to death for our redemption.

Just don’t be among those who fight for the first seat. Head for the best seat in the house. Let God move you up!

Use your "back" button to return to your place.

1. Ann Landers, 7/12/90

2. Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's Hamburgers, WELL DONE: A COMMON GUY'S GUIDE TO EVERYDAY SUCCESS, (Harper Collins, 1994), p. 159.

3. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1988) p. 200.

 

*Dave Redick is editor of The Preacher's Study. The majority of sermons in the Premium section are his writing.

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