Posted on October 3rd, 2013
Manners in the King’s Court: Proverbs 25:6-14 (and Luke 14:1-11), preached at Immanuel on September 22, 2013
My parents are visiting this weekend for my sister’s birthday, and I suppose it’s fitting that my mom is here the day we get a lesson both from Proverbs and Jesus on table manners. My mom, you see, is a stickler for manners. I fulfill the filial duty of seeing how much I can get away with. She’s an advocate of what she calls using “White House manners.” I say, I’ll use them when I’m at the White House; and when I’m at my house, I’ll use my manners.
Manners are important, I suppose; but is that all the book of Proverbs is doing: teaching us good manners? And is Jesus in today’s Gospel really just commenting on etiquette at a dinner party?
Examine with me more carefully these words from Proverbs 25. Our reading today begins at verse 6, but the beginning of the chapter gives us a clue that something deeper is taking place: “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied. It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
God conceals things; great mysteries are hidden in everyday things. In these Proverbs, as in the things of nature and in human relationships of marriage and family, wondrous things are concealed; it is the glory of kings to search them out, and it is our glory this morning to search out the mysteries of God richly prepared for us in His Word.
What mystery do we find in the first couplet? “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Practical? Perhaps. Mannerly? Definitely. And yet it is common wisdom that you will get nowhere unless you do put yourself forward. If you are in the king’s presence, if you are in the presence of the president or a general or a CEO, that is precisely the time to shine, to make your presence known. Self-promotion is the name of the game. Sell yourself. We have people in our culture who are famous simply for being famous.
“Do not put yourself forward”? That is bad advice.
“What your eyes have seen,” he continues, “do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? Argue your case with your neighbor himself and do not reveal another’s secret, lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.” This too seems contrary to modern wisdom. Being first with the news, whether it’s breaking news on a media outlet, or you being the first to deliver some sordid tale via text message or the dreaded Facebook – being first is most highly valued, and everyone rushes to reveal another’s secret.
Don’t be hasty, or it will bring shame? Shame on the person who would bring shame! The only shame is in thinking there is shame.
Then last, we have careful words contrasted with bluster: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the soul of his masters. Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.” Be judicious with your words? Such a man the world passes by. Be filled with hot air? These are the men the world puts in great positions of power and glory.
The world would be a better place if people stopped putting themselves forward; if people were more careful with gossiping and secrets; and if people concentrated on words fitly spoken rather than a great sound and fury signifying nothing.
And so, if it is not the best way to get ahead in the world that Proverbs is giving us, it certainly is good manners. White House manners, or at least Jerusalem Palace manners.
But we saw a few weeks ago that Proverbs is not merely a book of Moral McNuggets. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
Who is the king, the one in whose presence we are not to put ourselves forward? It is not Solomon, or Hezekiah. It is not President Obama, or Governor McDonnell. The king is God. And the entire story of our race is man putting himself forward, even setting himself up as god. This man does not fear the king, love the king, trust the king; he only wishes advancement for himself.
Jesus applies these proverbs to the men jockeying for the best seats at the banquet; and you have been there too, even angling for your preferred seat in church. Yet soon it would be His own disciples, lobbying for the best cabinet positions in the coming administration when Jesus takes office as king in Jerusalem. What is at the core of such behavior? Hubris. Pride. Vanity. Selfishness.
The Bible is more than manners. These Proverbs reveal your heart, how you put yourself forward when you ought to throw yourself to the ground. How dare any of us even come into the church, much less approach the altar? How dare any of us rebuke our neighbor, when there is so much wickedness in us?
And what of your words? “What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court.” What is this but the Eighth Commandment, which enjoins us to build each other up, speak well of each other, defend our neighbor when she is slandered, explain everything in the kindest way? We love to slander, for we are more like the slanderer, Satan, the accuser, than we are like our Father in heaven. More than practical advice, the proverbs concerning the tongue reveal in us a world of iniquity.
And then we have the man of bluster: “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.” This is not just a blowhard, the guy who talks endlessly, who makes promises he does not or cannot keep.
No, this is a picture of all human spirituality, all human religiosity, all human works and efforts. “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.” “Every good and perfect gift,” the Scripture says, “comes down from above, from the Father of lights.” God gives, man receives.
All the human race boasts of gifts it cannot give. Buildings are erected, plaques of donors affixed, memorials are built, and everywhere men trumpet their good deeds. It is all boasting, pride, hubris.
Human spirituality is filled with pride, boasting of gifts which bring glory to the giver. Human spirituality says, “I have advanced, I have attained, I have achieved enlightenment, inner peace.”
But divine spirituality says, “I have tried to advance, but have continually slid back. I have tried to attain, but have only heaped up sins for myself. I have sought enlightenment in my soul, but found there only darkness and despair, vanity and arrogance.”
Such spirituality turns to Jesus and says, “You, O Jesus, heal men on the Sabbath. If an ox fell in the ditch, You would rescue him. If a son fell in a well, You would lift him up. I am not worthy to be called God’s son, for I am a worm and no man, the most wretched of creatures. I have put myself forward, I have passed on gossip, I have blustered with hot air, sound and fury signifying nothing. Dear Lord Jesus, I have fallen into the well, even the sewer, and I confess I have even liked what I found in the sewer. I am a mess, covered with filth. I cannot rescue myself. Lift me up, Lord Jesus, by the wood of Your cross. I would gladly sit at the foot of Your table and receive your crumbs. I would rather be a doorkeeper in Your house then be king of any palace this world offers me. Dear Lord Jesus, rescue me from this pit, this well, this hell.”
And from His cross Jesus replies, “Friend, go up higher.”