A Pilgrims Got to Know Her Limitations

Session Date: 
Sunday, September 1, 2019
Bible Text: 
Luke 14:1, 7-14


A Christmas or so ago, Susan gave me a smoker. Never having cooked with the “low and slow” method of smoking various meats, I read a few books, talked to a couple of people, but more than anything, I became a devotee of the “Do It Yourself” video.

DIY is something of a trend, and just about anything you want to do, from smoking a brisket, fixing a running toilet, or adding a room to your house, can be found on the internet.

If you watch enough, you begin to think of yourself as an expert, one who can do anything, just as long as you can reference the right “how to” video. There can even be a sense that anything can be done, and we can do anything, DIY. At the Fine Arts museum gift shop there was even a magnetic game called “Design your own deity.” That’s all well and good, even fun, except for those complex times when true expertise and experience are required. Or those important moments when we realize we are not a god.

It reminds me of the line from the old macho Dirty Harry movie where the hero reflects on the demise of a bad guy saying, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Invariably, at some point, we can get in over our heads.

We may be able to learn some skills for cooking or building, or repairing, but our human temptation to full self-reliance, empowered of course by the right self-help technique, will get us in trouble. When left to our own instincts, ideas and attitudes, we inevitably make choices that hurt ourselves and others; that create lives and worlds far less joyful, abundant and beautiful than God intends. As Luke tells it, we think more highly of ourselves than we should, and end up embarrassed and ashamed when our cover is blown and our real lives don’t match the façade we put on for the world.

So as disciples, we might rephrase Dirty Harry’s mantra to “A pilgrim’s got to know her limitations.” Otherwise we will all follow the path to the arrogance displayed at the Pharisee’s dinner table when Jesus calls out the arrogance of the religious leaders.

When one spends her time admiring her own achievements, (imagined or real) one quickly forgets how much she needs others. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all inescapably dependent on others- parents who birth us, teachers who nurture us, farmers who feed us, artisans and factory workers who help clothe us, and on it goes, almost without end. And to be alive, is to be dependent on God, who brings the world, and us within it, into being.

Using the teachings of Proverbs, Jesus tells the assembled “self-made” VIP’s that God’s priorities and pecking order are vastly different than the ones they instituted and enjoy. DIY discipleship never turns out well Often it leads to disaster. Wisdom comes in the form of knowing our limits, our place, our need for God’s guidance, our reliance on God’s provision, out utter dependence on God’s mercy.

We are blind to all of that when we become enamored of our own alleged self-worth. The sages of Proverbs insist that the one who becomes full of herself is as one who denies the reality of God. That’s the inner logic of the arrogance that Jesus calls out.

Mark Twain witheringly observed that “a self-made man is like a self-laid egg.” Arrogance is presumptuous. It’s also false. And at bottom, it is a form of forgetfulness. The only words we remember are I and me.

That has grave ethical consequences. When we exalt ourselves we forget how much we owe to others. And in that frame of mind, we run the risk of granting ourselves moral license, because the rules only apply to our inferiors.

Which is why Jesus, recalling the dozen or so times the Scriptures illustrate that pride going before the fall, makes this warning.

So what is the alternative to DIY discipleship and its arrogance? Humble and committed service to the One greater than ourselves. Psalm 132 petitions God to “remember in David’s favor all the hardships he endured” in serving God and building the temple. Which means a large part of our pilgrim journey as disciples is about learning to glorify and exalt someone greater than ourselves.

Jesus is reminding disciples that vanity and bombast lead to devastation, and that humble service leads to the only glory that matters: being good and worthy in the eyes of God and our fellow human beings.

When Jesus moves from our role as guests at a banquet to hosts, and whom to invite, his point is not that we deny our welcome to those closest to us, but that we extend our welcome to those whom others tend to forget or ignore.

Why is that important? Because to invite the unseen and unregarded is to embody the living antithesis to self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. It comes down to upending that DIY self-ethos that so often dominates our lives. Instead of plotting what we can get, we must ask how we can serve and what we can give.

The Hebrew sage Maimonides, reflecting on the proverbial wisdom Jesus is citing, offered guidance for when we celebrate a festival: “When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with God’s command, but rather the rejoicing of his own belly.”

If arrogance destroys, blinding us to our own limitations, kindness and generosity give life, both to the giver and to the receiver.