Sunday, August 29, 2004

Thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Proverbs 25:6-7 or Sir 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: His heart is fixed, trusting in Jehovah.

In last week’s lesson, from Luke 13, the synagogue ruler was indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. However, in today’s lesson Jesus is found eating at the home of a Pharisee. It isn’t surprising that Jesus would visit someone’s home, but it is surprising He would have been invited, particularly to eat. Sharing food was a very intimate experience and there were strict rules about who could eat with the Jews. Jesus Himself was berated for eating with tax collectors and sinners. If Jesus were a sinner, why would He have been invited to dinner?

The passage does tell us that they were watching Jesus carefully. They wanted to see how He would respond to situations, what words He might use. They wanted to catch Him doing something wrong so that they could get rid of Him. Yet, they could do that in any situation, why dinner? It is likely they had respect for Jesus, at least in terms of religious behavior. Though some of His actions were drastically different, He obeyed the Torah. In this story, we see that at least some of the Pharisees accepted Jesus as a peer.

This dinner must have been quite an event. It appears from the scriptures that there are a number of important dignitaries present. There was a definite hierarchy in Jesus’ day. Some people were greater and others lesser. Even the people in between had a very specific place in the pecking order. Seating at a dinner was dependent on a person’s position in society. Some groups apparently did a yearly analysis of their members to ensure that the seating order was still correct.

I suppose in many ways this still occurs in our society today. When there is a wedding on a sitcom, one of the episodes inevitably includes the table planning for the reception, always ending in hilarity because the bride and groom can’t make their guests fit without someone being offended. Just when they think they have it all worked out, one of their mothers enters scene to remind them that Uncle Joe and Aunt Beatrice can’t sit together because they’ve been feuding for twenty years. Or she tells them that she invited the milkman from their old house in the country so they have to add two more seats.

This event in Jerusalem on this particular Sabbath was probably not quite so difficult to plan, but it appears as though there was some discussion about the seating arrangements with Jesus present. “And he spake a parable unto those that were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief seats; saying unto them, When thou art bidden of any man to a marriage feast, sit not down in the chief seat; lest haply a more honorable man than thou be bidden of him, and he that bade thee and him shall come and say to thee, Give this man place; and then thou shalt begin with shame to take the lowest place.”

These men were more concerned about themselves than their fellow guests. They had to prove their importance by being in the places of honor. It was a matter of pride. Jesus turned their world upside down. He did this in every area of their lives. God was about mercy, not sacrifice. The kings would be toppled while the poor would be lifted up. The passage from Sirach (otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus, one of the deuterocanonical books) for today has this to say, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12, NRSV)

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus approaches the problem from their own perspective. Wouldn’t it be better to be raised up by the host than moved down? Yet, the issue He is dealing with is much deeper. Pride makes us look out for ourselves and ignore the needs and value of others. From Sirach, “For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” (Sirach 10:13a, NRSV) When we live in pride, our focus becomes self-centered and we fall into other sins like lust and greed. The seat we have today is never good enough, so we strive to take hold of something better. We are never happy. In this story Jesus is having dinner with the people who have it all. They have power, authority, wealth and health. Yet, they are seeking more.

The world of the proud is not pretty. “Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely. The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their place. The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place. The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations, and destroys them to the foundations of the earth. He removes some of them and destroys them, and erases the memory of them from the earth.” (Sirach 10:13b-17, NRSV)

When we put our focus on ourselves, we begin to see the world around us and self-centered. We fear that everyone else is also trying to get ahead. We become paranoid that they are willing to do anything to get to the top. When we are not content with our lot in life, we think that no one else is content either. This leads to an attitude of fairness that demands equality in everything – an eye for an eye. When we are kind to someone, we expect them to return the favor. When we have a dinner party, we anticipate the dinner parties we will be invited to attend in repayment for our hospitality.

Jesus addresses this issue also. He tells these men of power and position that rather than inviting their good buddies, their peers who can repay them an eye for an eye, they should invite the poor to come to their house. This must have been a difficult thing to hear because the purpose of these dinner parties had little to do with feeding the hungry. They were business, the business of getting ahead. What good could a poor man do for a Pharisee? Besides, the poor, the lame and the blind were cursed and unclean. They could not, by law, have them at their table.

So, Jesus makes the guests look at the world, and the law, from a whole new perspective. What would it be like if they welcomed the hungry to their table? What if they treated the lame and the blind with mercy and compassion rather than contempt? What does the world look like from a position of humility? It is a place of contentment, a place where we are so happy with what we have that praise to God comes before our own needs.

The blessings of such a life are great. The psalmist writes, “His seed shall be mighty upon earth: The generation of the upright shall be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house; And his righteousness endureth for ever.” Isn’t it interesting that those who seek after those things are the ones who will fall, but the ones who are humble will be lifted up? The life of contentment is a life that has no fear, except the awe inspired fear of God. “For he shall never be moved; The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance. He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: His heart is fixed, trusting in Jehovah.”

When we trust in God, we need not worry about our position in the world or strive to make it better. We can give of our wealth for the sake of others and know that tomorrow will be blessed. “He hath dispersed, he hath given to the needy; His righteousness endureth for ever: His horn shall be exalted with honor.” God honors those who give. On the most basic level we can see this as a giving of our resources to help those who are less fortunate than us. As Jesus told the Pharisees to invite the poor, the lame and the blind, so too we are called to give to those in need.

Yet, we have resources that go far beyond our material wealth and there are needs that are not so visible as those of the poor, lame and blind. We automatically assume that because someone has a big house or a pretty car that they are happy. However, in truth many people who seem to be blessed suffer from even greater dis-ease than those who are poor, lame and blind. They are sick in heart and soul and needs God’s grace for forgiveness, hope and peace. They need to hear the words of Jesus, let go of their pride and humble themselves before God. We must remember, however, that pride is not limited to the rich and healthy. The healing of a person’s soul, the turning from self is the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

If we live in a quest for self gratification, we chase after our own wants and needs. In Christ, we are called to live differently. The writer of Hebrews gives us an image of the life of faith manifested in this world. He calls Christians to love one another, to be hospitable to the stranger, empathetic to the imprisoned, faithful in relationships and content in everything. He calls us to look to God who supplies everything we need – physically, emotionally and spiritually. He reminds us to remember the witnesses who have shared the Gospel of Christ with us so that we might be saved and follow their example. We are to stand firm in the truth that Jesus Christ is the same today as He was and as He will be.

“Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested in a life that is lived for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.

Thanks be to God.

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