And He put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when He marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, when thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room, lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.--LUKE xiv. 7-11.
We heard in the gospel for to-day how the Lord Jesus put forth a parable to those who were invited to a dinner with Him at the Pharisee's house. A parable means an example of any rules or laws; a story about some rule, by hearing which people may see how the rule works in practice, and understand it. Now, our Lord's parables were about the kingdom of God. They were examples of the rules and laws by which the kingdom of God is governed and carried on. Therefore He begins many of His parables by saying, The kingdom of God is like something--something which people see daily, and understand more or less. "The kingdom of God is like a field;" "The kingdom of God is like a net;" "The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed;" and so forth. And even where He did not begin one of His parables by speaking of the kingdom of God, we may be still certain that it has to do with the kingdom of God. For the one great reason why the Lord was made flesh and dwelt among us, was to preach the kingdom of God, His Father and our Father, and to prove to men that God was their King, even at the price of his most precious blood. And, therefore, everything which He ever did, and everything which He ever spoke, had to do with this one great work of His. This parable, therefore, which you heard read in the gospel for to-day, has to do with the kingdom of God, and is an example of the laws of it.
Now, what is the kingdom of God? It is worth our while to consider. For at baptism we were declared members of the kingdom of God; we were to renounce the world, and to live according to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is simply the way in which God governs men; and the world is the way in which men try to manage without God's help or leave. That is the difference between them; and a most awful difference it is. Men fancy that they can get on well enough without God; that the ways of the world are very reasonable, and useful, and profitable, and quite good enough to live by, if not to die by. But all the while God is King, let them fancy what they like; and this earth, and everything on it, from the king on his throne to the gnat in the sunbeam, is under His government, and must obey His laws or die. We are in God's kingdom, my good friends, every one of us, whether we like it or not, and we shall be there for ever and ever. And our business is, therefore, simply to find out what are the laws of that kingdom, and obey those laws as speedily as possible, and live for ever thereby, lest, if we break them, and get in their way, they should grind us to powder.
Now, here is one of the laws of God's kingdom: "Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and whosoever abaseth himself shall be exalted." That is, whosoever, in any way whatsoever, sets himself up, will be pulled down again: while he who is contented to keep low, and think little of himself, will be raised up and set on high. Now the world's rule is the exact opposite of this. The world says, Every man for himself. The way of the world is to struggle and strive for the highest place; to be a pushing man, and a rising man, and a man who will stand stiffly by his rights, and give his enemy as good as he brings, and beat his neighbour out of the market, and show off himself to the best advantage, and try to make the most of whatever wit or money he has to look well in the world, that people may look up to him and flatter him and obey him; and so the world has no objection to people's pretending to be better than they are. Every man must do the best he can for himself, the world says, and never mind his neighbours: they must take care of themselves; and if they are foolish enough to be taken in, so much the worse for them. So the world thinks that there is no harm in a man, when he has anything to sell, making it out better than it really is, and hiding the fault in it as far as he can. When a tradesman or manufacturer sends about "puffs" of his goods, and pretends that they are better and cheaper than other people's, just to get custom by it, the world does not call that what it is--boasting and lying. It says: "Of course a man must do the best he can for himself. If a man does not praise himself, nobody else will praise him; he cannot expect his neighbours to take him for better than his own words." So again, if a man wants a place or situation, the world thinks it no harm if he gives the most showy character of himself, and gets his friends to say all the good of him they can, and a great deal more, and to say none of the harm--in short, to make himself out a much better, or shrewder, or worthier man than he really is. The world does not call that either what it is--boasting, and lying, and thrusting oneself into callings to which God has not called us. The world says: "Of course a man must turn his best side outwards. You cannot expect a man to tell tales on himself."
And, my friends, the world would be quite right, and reasonable, and prudent, in telling us to push, and boast, and lie, and puff ourselves and our goods, if it were not for one thing which the foolish blind world is always forgetting, and that is, that there is a God who judges the earth. If God were not our King; if He took no care of us men and our doings; if mankind had it all their own way on earth, and were forced to shift for themselves without any laws of God to guide them, then the best thing every man could do would be to fight for himself; to get all he could for himself, and leave as little as he could for his neighbours; to make himself out as great, and wise, and strong, as he could, and try to make his neighbours buy him at his own price. That would be the best plan for every man, if God was not King; and therefore the world says that that is the best plan for every man, because the world does not believe that God is King, and hates the notion that God is King, and laughs at and persecutes, as Jesus Christ said it would, those who preach the kingdom of God, and tell men, as I tell you in God's name: "You were not made to be selfish; you were not meant to rise in the world by boasting and pushing down and deceiving your neighbours. For you are subjects of God's kingdom; and to do so is to break his laws, and to put yourselves under His curse; and however worldly-wise all this selfishness and boasting may seem, it is sin, whose wages are death and ruin."
For, my friends, let the world try to forget God as it will, He does not forget the world. Let men try to make rules and laws for themselves, rules about religion, rules about government, rules about trade, rules about morals and what they fancy is just and fair; let them make as many rules as they like, they are only wasting their time; for God has made His rules already, and revealed them to us in the Bible, and told us that the earth and mankind are governed in His way, and not in ours, and that He will not alter His everlasting rules to suit our new ones. As David says: "Let the people be never so unquiet, still the Lord is King."
Ah, my friends, it is very easy to say all this, but it is not so easy to believe it. Every one, every respectable person at least, is ready enough to talk about God, and God's will, and so forth. But when it comes to practice; when it comes to doing God's will, and not our own; when it comes to obeying His direct and plain commands, and not the fashions and maxims which men have invented for themselves; when it comes to giving up what we long for, because He has said that if we try after it in our own way, and not in His, we shall never have it at all, then comes the trial; then comes the time to see whether we believe that God is the King of the earth or not; then comes the time to see whether we have renounced the world, and determined to live as God's sons in God's kingdom, or whether our religion is some form of words, or way of thinking and feeling which we hope may save our souls from hell, but which has nothing to do with our daily life and conduct, and leaves us just as worldly as any heathen, in all our dealings with our fellow-men, from Monday morning to Saturday night. Then comes the time to try our faith in God.
And then, alas! it comes out, in these evil, and godless, and hypocritical times in which we live, that many a man who fancies himself religious, and respectable, and blameless, and what not, no more really believes that he is living in God's kingdom than the heathen do. And if you ask him, you will find out most probably that he fancies that God's kingdom is not on earth now, but that it will be on earth some day. A cunning delusion of the devil, that, my friends! To make us go his way while we fancy that we are going our own way. To make us say to ourselves: "Ah! it is very unfortunate that God is not King of the earth now. Of course He will be after the resurrection, in the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no sin. But He is not King now; this world is given over to sin and the devil, so fallen and ruined and corrupt that--that--that, in short, we cannot be expected to behave like God's children in it, but must just follow the ways of the world, and live by ambition, and selfishness, and cunning, and boasting, and competing in this life; a life of love, and justice, and humbleness, and fellow-help, and mercy, and self-sacrifice is impossible in such a world as this; we cannot live like angels, till we get to heaven!" So say nine people out of ten; the devil deceiving them, and their own hearts, alas! being but too glad to catch at the excuse for sin which the devil gives them, when he tells them that this present earth is not God's kingdom; and so they go and act accordingly, selfish, grudging, pushing, boastful, every man's hand against his neighbour and for himself, till they succeed too often in making this earth as fearfully like the devil's kingdom as it is possible for God's kingdom to be made.
But what, some may ask, has all this to do with the text that he who sets himself up shall be brought low, he who keeps himself low shall be set up? What has it to do with the text? It has everything to do with the text. If people really believed that they were God's subjects and children in God's kingdom, they would not need to ask that question long.
If God is really the King of the earth, there can be no use in anyone setting up himself. If God is really the King of the earth, those who set up themselves must be certain to be brought down from their high thoughts and high assumptions sooner or later. For if God is really the King of the earth, He must be the one to set people up, and not they themselves. Look again at the parable. The man who asks the guests to dine with him has surely a right to place each of them where he likes. The house is his, the dinner is his. He has a right to invite whom he likes; and he has a right to settle where they shall sit. If they choose their own places--if any guest takes upon himself to seat himself at the head of the table, because he thinks it his right, he offends against all rules of right feeling and propriety toward the man who has invited him. All he has a right to expect is, that his host will not put him in the wrong place, that he will settle all places at his table according to people's real rank and deserts, and as our Testaments say, put "the worthiest man in the highest room." And if people really believed in God, which very few do, they would surely expect no less of God. What gentleman, farmer, or labourer is there, with common sense and good feeling, who would not show most respect to the most respectable persons who came into his house, and send his best and trustiest workmen about his most important errands? True, he might make mistakes, and worse. Being a weak man, he might be tempted to put the rich sinner in a higher place than the poor saint: or he might, from private fancy, be blinded about his workmen's characters, and so send a worse man, because he was his favourite, to do what another man whom he did not fancy as well might do a great deal better. But you cannot suspect God of that. He is no respecter of persons-- whether a man be rich or poor, no matter to God: all which He inquires into is--Is he righteous or unrighteous, wise or foolish, able to do his work or unable? And God can make no mistakes about people's characters. As St. Paul says of the Lord Jesus: "The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing through to the dividing of the very joints and marrow, so that all things are naked and open in the sight of Him with whom we have to do." There is no blinding God, no hiding from God, no cheating God, just as there is no flattering God. He knows what each and every one of us is fit for. He knows what each and every one of us is worth; and what is more, He knows what we ought to know, that each and every one of us is worth nothing without Him. Therefore there is no use pretending to be better than we are. God knows just how good we are, and will reward us, even in this life only according as we deserve, in spite of all our boasting. There is no use pretending to be wiser than we are. For all the wisdom we have comes from God; and if we pretend to have more than we have, and by that greatest act of folly, show that we have no wisdom at all, He will take from us even what we have, and make all our cunning plans come to nothing, and prove us fools, just when we fancy ourselves most clever. There is no use being ambitious and pushing, and trying to scramble up on our neighbours' shoulders. For we were not sent into this world to do what we like, but what God likes; not to work for ourselves, but to work for God; and God knows exactly how much good each of us can do, and what is the best place for us to do it in, and how to teach and enable us to do it; and if we choose to be taught, He will teach us; and if we choose to go His way, and do His work, He will help us to it. But if we will not have his way, He will not let us have our own way--not at first, at least. He will bring our plans to nothing, and let us make fools of ourselves, and bring in sudden accidents of which we never dreamed, just to show us that we are not our own masters, and cannot cut out our own roads through life. And if we take His lesson, and go to Him to teach and strengthen us--well: and if not--then perhaps--which is the most awful misery which can happen to any man in earth--God may give up teaching us during this life, and let us have our own way, and be filled with the fruit of our own devices; from which worst of punishments may He in His mercy, save you, and me, and all belonging to us, in this life and in the life to come.
But some of you may say: "We understand the first half of the text very well, and like it very well; we all think it just that those who set themselves up should have a fall, and we are very glad to see them have a fall: but we do not see why he who abases himself should have any right to be exalted." Ah, my friends, it is much easier, and needs much less knowledge of God, and much less of the likeness of Christ, to see what is wrong, than to see what is right. Every man knows when a bone is broken, but it is not every one who can set it again. Nevertheless, there is a sort of left-handed reason in that argument. For a man has no more right to make himself out worse than he is, than he has to make himself out better than he is. A man should confess to being just what he is, neither more nor less. Nevertheless, he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
Of course I do not mean those who, like some I know, make a fawning humble way of talking a cloak for their own self-conceit; who call themselves miserable sinners all the time that they are fancying that they are almost the only people in the world who are sure of being saved, whatever they do; who, as some do, actually pride themselves on their own convictions of sin, and glory in their own shame, and despise those who will not slander themselves as they do.
They are equally hateful to God and to God's enemies. If you and I are disgusted at such hypocritical self-conceit, be sure the Lord Jesus is far more pained at it than we are; for as a wise man says: "The devil's darling sin is the pride that apes humility."
But let a man really be convinced of sin; let a man really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ's atonement; let a man really believe in the Holy Spirit; and that man will have little need to ask why he should humble himself more than he deserves, and little wish to boast of himself, and push himself forward, and get praise, or riches, or power in the world. For that man would say to himself: "I, sinner as I am; I, who know that I do so many wrong things daily; things so wrong that it required the blood of the Son of God to wash out the guilt of them--who am I to set myself up? I cannot be faithful in a little--why should I try to be ruler over much? I cannot use properly the blessings and the power which God does give me--must I not take for granted that, if I had more riches, more power, I should use them still worse? I know well enough of a thousand sins, and weaknesses and ignorances in myself which my neighbours never see. I believe, therefore, my neighbours have much too good an opinion of me, and not too bad a one; and therefore I am not going to boast or puff myself to them. I can only thank God they do not see the inside of this foolish heart of mine as well as He does! In short, I am not going to set myself up, and try to get a higher place among men than I have already, because I am certain that I have already a ten times better one than I deserve."
Or again, if a man really believed in the Holy Ghost, which is much the same as really believing in the kingdom of God; if he really believed that God was the King and Master of his heart and soul; if he really believed that everything good, and right, and wise in him came from God's Holy Spirit, and that everything wrong and foolish in him came from himself and the devil; then he would surely say to himself: "Who am I to try to set myself up above my neighbours, and get power over them; what have I that I did not receive? Whatever money, or station, or cleverness, or power of mind I have, God has given me, and without Him I should be nothing. Therefore, He only gave me these talents to use for Him, and if I use them for my own ends, I shall be misusing them, and trying to rob God of His own. I am His child, His subject, His steward; He has put me just in that place in His earth which is most fit for me, and my business is, not to try to desert my post, and to wander out of the place here He has put me, but to see that I do the duty which lies nearest me, so that I shall be able to give an account to Him. It is only if I am faithful in a few things, that I can expect God to make me ruler over many things." Ah, my friends, if we could but see ourselves, not as we fancy we are, nor as others fancy we are, but just as we really are, then, instead of pushing, and boasting, and standing stiffly by our rights, and fancying that God and man are unjust to us, we should be crying out all day long with the prodigal son: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." We should say with St. Paul--who, after all, remember, was the wisest, and most learned, and noblest-hearted of all the Apostles--that we are at best the chief of sinners. We should feel like the dear and blessed Magdalene of old, the pattern for ever of all true penitents, that it was quite honour enough to be allowed to wash Christ's feet with our tears, while every one round us sneered at us and looked down upon us--as, after all, we deserve. And so, believe me, we should be exalted. It would pay us, if payment is what we want. For so we should be in a more right, more true, more healthy, more wise, more powerful state of mind; more like Jesus Christ, and therefore more likely to be sent to do Christ's work, and share Christ's reward. For this is the great law of the kingdom of God in which we live, that man is nothing, and God is everything; and that we are strong and wise, and something, only when we find out that we are weak and foolish, and nothing, and go to our Father in heaven for strength, and wisdom, and spiritual eternal life. And then we find out how true it is that he who humbles himself, as he deserves, will be raised up; how he who loses his life will save it; how blessed are the poor in spirit, those who feel that they have nothing but what God chooses to give them; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; who feel that they are not doing right, and yet cannot rest till they do right; for they shall be filled! How blessed are the meek, who do not set up themselves, or try to fight their own battles, and compete with their neighbours in the great scramble and struggle of this world; for they--just the last persons whom the world would expect to do it--shall inherit the earth! Choose, my friends, choose! The world says: "Push upwards, praise yourself, help yourself, put your best side outwards." The great God who made heaven and earth says: "Know that you are weak, and foolish, and sinful in yourself. Know that whatever wisdom you have, I the Lord lent you; and I the Lord expect the interest of my loan. Know that you are my child in my Kingdom. Stay where I have put you, and when I want you for something better, I will call you; and if you try to rise without my calling you, I will only drive you back again. So the only way to be ruler over much, is first to be faithful in a little. My friends, which of the two do you think is likely to know best, man or God?