Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
I doubt that Jesus ever turned down an invitation to dinner. While reading through the Gospels, you’re as likely to find Him at a table as you are on a dusty road, and He didn’t appear to be all that concerned with who the host might be. On any given day you might see Jesus eating on paper plates with the riff-raff of society or on the fine china of the well-to-do. By His own account His freedom of association apparently fostered an ugly smear campaign, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7:34 NKJV.
Meal sharing was an important social event of the day that reminded everyone just where they were in the pecking order of the community. To be invited was a great honor, and to sit at the head of the table was a double honor. This is the sixth time that Luke records Jesus being the special guest of religous leaders. You have to wonder why He kept accepting the invitations after being repeatedly set up and exploited. Then again, why did they keep inviting Him? Jesus had a knack for working His way through their philosophical mine fields and often left them choking on their own hypocrisy, but the establishment was determined to undermine His ministry and disgrace Him publicly.
On this day Jesus was not the only invited guest for dinner. Another guest who showed up was a man suffering from a medical condition, known as “dropsy,” which caused fluid to accumulate in his body and swell his legs, most likely the result of a heart or kidney problem but often regarded as a curse for sin. The trap was sprung pubicly for all to witness. Do you heal him or not? If you don’t heal him, you’re cold-hearted and have no compassion, but if you heal him, you’re disregarding the Sabbath and have no morals.
It’s a techincal gray area for what’s permissible behavior on the Sabbath. So in His wisdom and wit Jesus deferred to the ruling of the experts, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They would not answer, so Jesus healed the man and sent him away. Then he asked them “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” The different sects actually had writings that set precedent for just such a scenario. One group believed it was ok. The other said they should stay in the well till tomorrow. Now, they could not answer without exposing their own hypocrisy.
If people were superstitious enough to believe that dropsy was caused by sin, in their minds Jesus didn’t just heal him physically. He was actually removing the consequence of sinfulness… guilt and shame. Neither was Jesus satisfied with just silencing His hosts. He went on to tell a parable that revealed that they suffered from an accumulation of self-righteousness that was no doubt caused by a spiritual issue of the heart.
As you read the rest of the passage, it appears to be a simple lesson in social etiquette and graces, but it actually threatens to undermine a religious system that endures to this day. Luke makes a special point to say that this is a parable, which implies that there is subtext and meaning of spiritual signifigance.
When I was young we had a family tradition on Sundays that we would all go to my grandparents’ house for lunch after church where my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all get together. My grandparents had a really big dinner table where all the food was spread out like a feast, but it was still only large enough to seat the grown-ups. So there was a smaller table in the kitchen for the big kids and lap trays on the floor for the little ones. I’ll never forget when I was older in high school that one day I was promoted to sit at the big table. I thought that I had made it, but it would be several more years before I had fully arrived and was allowed to join the adults at the table for coffee in the afternoon.
The seat you sit in often says a lot about your place in the world. Just last week it was reported that an assitant high school principal in our area sent out an email to her faculty requiring teachers to sit the black boys in the front row of the class to keep a closer eye on them. While African-Americans have struggled for fifty years to move to the front row, I doubt this is why they wanted to be sitting there. Although the principal quickly recended the order and reprimanded the assistant, it’s shameful and painful to see discrimination and prejudice limping along in our day.
I have no doubt that you have also witnessed situations in life, where things just seemed out of balance. Often times, we don’t have a choice in the seats we take. We do what we must and look to a day when the scales will be even again. In Luke’s day there were enormous socio-economic gaps between the wealthy and the poor, between men and women, between the insiders and the outsiders, and those who had power and those who suffered at its hands. By the time this Gospel was written it had been several years since the death and resurrection of Christ, and many people began to question whether or not Jesus would return in their lifetime and exactly what that meant for Him to return. So there was a growing divide between those that believed and those that questioned. It was tempting to believe that injustice would prevail and the score was fixed, but Jesus told this subversive parable that counters the imbalance in the world. See vs. 7-11.
We learn in the parable immediately following this one that the kind of banquet that God plans comes with an open invitation to everyone. In that parable just like in Jesus’ day the religious leaders and the self-righteous scoffed at attending such a banquet where just anybody would be sitting next to them. Instead they scampered to be on the A-list to the members only parties where they would “see and be seen.”
If we understand this idea that God invites everybody, that puts us all on equal footing. No one is better or more deserving in attendance than the next person. A friend of mine who is a Southern Gospel singer/songwriter wrote a song called “The Ground is Level at Calvary.” The same goes for the religous leaders of Jesus’ day as well as our own. Our preachers, deacons, and missionaries must lead through service and humility and not from the power of a position and notoriety. We live in a strange modern era where many Christian leaders are operating and being treated like CEO’s and rock stars, which is just a post-modern upgrade to “touch not the Lord’s annointed.”
I remember attending a Pastor’s school at Beeson Divinity School several years ago, and Alistair Begg was the featured Bible teacher for the daily services that week. I was amazed by the way he handled the Gospel of Luke that week and the personal humilty that came through his message. Immediately after the service we were all gathered in air-conditioned tents on the lawn for lunch. I looked up to see him seated just a few tables over from my wife and I. It was strange because no one was sitting with him at first until the other tables began to fill up. I guess it was kind of like when Moses came down from the mountain and his face was glowing. His message was just powerful that morning. I was struck that he was eating a sandwich and chips on a styrofoam plate like the rest of us. That may sound silly, but I imagine he could have been smoozing with the other speakers at a nice restaurant. I never saw any of the others in the lunch tent that week. He could have retreated back to his hotel room until the next service, but he didn’t. He ate with us, which I remember today even more than the message that he preached.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” Philippians 2:5-8 NKJV.
We all have friends and family members that we love to spend time with and enjoy their company. Jesus set that example for us in his life, so he’s not condemning that kind of fellowship. I think in these last verses he’s condemning exclusive fellowship and challenging us to be intentional about who we include.
I have greatly enjoyed using Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community in England as a devotional guide for my prayers and scripture readings. They adapt a form of family prayer for meals based on the Jewish prayers for Shabbat. When giving thanks before sharing a meal they mention the importance of leaving an empty seat at the table with an extra place setting:
“To welcome the Christ who comes in the guise of a stranger or ‘unexpected’ visitor. [To] remind us that we long for the coming of Christ – His returning – and yet honour his presence with us. Also, it teaches us to treat with honour whoever may come and be given the place prepared as His.”
It’s required of us to make outsiders feel like insiders and as insiders to be humble and gracious hosts. Back when I was in college and recently married, I met an older couple through a want ad in the paper who needed some help. I learned that the husband was completely blind and the wife was legally blind. They really wanted to go to church but had no way to attend. Although I was traveling about 30 minutes to serve as worship leader, I offered to bring them with my wife and I. We had seemingly nothing in common and regardless of their disabilities they were just a bit peculiar.
I remember helping them from their house to the car that first Sunday morning. The wife ran back into the house as we were leaving because she had forgotten her tambourine. I was in a panic. I knew they would stick out like tambourine players in a church full of white Southern Baptists, and I knew that my pastor absolutely loathed the tambourine playing in the services we did at the state prison. I sweated the whole way to church not knowing how to handle the situation.
When we arrived at church, I helped them out of the car, and when the wife went to pick up her tambourine I politely told her that I didn’t think she would need it. That didn’t matter, because she “wanted” it. Of course you would know that they wanted to sit on the second row in front of the pulpit. I remember leading worship and those two carrying on up front with their tambourine, while everyone was looking around to see where they came from. I felt like timidly raising my hand with a red face and announcing from the pulpit, “they’re with me,” but I didn’t want to single them out anymore than they were already. They came to church with us for several weeks before they decided to go elsewhere.
I say that to say that the people that we often have an opportunity to include may be very different from us. They may not have good hygiene or proper clothes. They may be uneducated or hungry. They not believe anything remotely close to the way we do, but still when we make room for them, we make room for Christ.
I sat at the big table as a pastor for several years. These days I feel like I’m back in the kitchen again on the floor with my Snoopy lap tray. I seem to make a mess of things often enough. From time to time I even flick a macaroni at my cousin and spill my juice, but for the first time in a long time I feel like Jesus is sitting on the floor with me, and it’s ok to be me. From Celtic Daily Prayer:
Bless, O Lord,
this food we are about to eat;
and we pray you, O God,
that it may be good
for our body and soul;
and, if there is any poor creature
hungry or thirsty walking the road,
may God send them in to us
so that we can share the food with them,
just as Christ share His gifts
with all of us.