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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jesus Is a Rude Dinner Guest – Luke 14: 1 - 14

We have been walking and moving this morning, traveling. We are, as we might say in The Salvation Army, ‘on the march,’ and in the scriptural passage that we’re looking at, Jesus also is journeying. And has been for some time. Luke’s gospel describes Jesus as travelling from his base of operations in the Galilean hill country up to Jerusalem over the course of 10 chapters, between Luke 9:51 (“When the days drew near for him to be receive up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (NRSV)) and his arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 19 (somewhere between verses 41 and 45) - over the course of these ten chapters Jesus is involved in preaching and teaching and healing and telling parables.  Some of Jesus’ most memorable stories were told along the road to Jerusalem.

Today we could make that trip in a couple of hours. We could hop in the car in the morning, get on the highway and be in Jerusalem in time for dinner. But Jesus would have been walking. If we were to assume (and we should be careful about our assumptions…) the average human walking speed of about 20 miles per day, this is a trip that would have taken him about 5 days. 

It’s not a terribly long trip (at least for those like Jesus who would have been accustomed to regularly walking such distances). But Luke seems to stretch it out a bit. Jesus must be taking the scenic route – stopping at every little town and village and hamlet and rural parish along the way, stopping to perform another miracle, or to tell another parable.

Actually, our estimate of 5 days might have to be modified. It would be about 5 days if he were walking straight through, but that fails to take into account Sabbath days. If he started mid-week, then Jesus could expect to stop for the Sabbath at least once. And since he seems to have been taking the long roundabout route, it’s likely that he stopped for several Sabbaths along the way. On Sabbath days – the day given to rest and worship – Jewish people were to limit their walking distance to about 2,000 cubits, roughly three-fifths of a mile. 

But this is no bother. He doesn’t exactly seem to be in a hurry. We’re stretching this 5 day walk over 10 chapters; so he has plenty of time to linger. It’s almost as if, like Scheherazade, he wants to delay what he knows must happen to him when he arrives at Jerusalem. And besides, Jesus liked to be in the synagogue on Sabbath days. It was his custom to be there with others of his faith even as he journeyed from place to place, from town to town and village to village, you could always find him in the local synagogue on any given Sabbath. He taught the people there. He met them there, shared with them, and ministered to them. So as he made the long journey from Capernaum – his base of operations in Galilee – to Jerusalem, Jesus stopped for Sabbath rest and joined the worshiping community in the synagogue wherever he was.

Now this particular Sabbath, Jesus is somewhere between Galilee and Jerusalem (Luke isn’t precise with the details) and a member of the Pharisees has invited Jesus to his house for the Sabbath meal. Already, I know, we are preparing ourselves for conflict, for confrontation. We have been conditioned to expect the worst of the scribes and lawyers and Pharisees. They are the perpetual boogeymen of the gospels.

But in historical perspective, the Pharisees were generally well liked and respected by the common people of Israel; “they were close to and revered by the ordinary folk” (Crossan 92). Despite the reputation they have today, the Pharisees were not one dimensional melodrama villains. If they went overboard in their attention to the legal issues of the torah it was because they wanted to be good and to be right with God.

One example, relevant to our discussion of Sabbath observance will suffice: the Pharisees who, in our common estimation, were cold legalists without a heart of warmth and compassion, actually allowed that the joining of the door-posts and lintels of houses was an acceptable way to obviate the injunction against travelling on the Sabbath. Families could join the doorposts of their houses, and then bring their food together to share the Sabbath feast together, without breaking the Law. (Porter 373) If this is cold legalism, let us have more of its kind.

Let’s also remember that this Pharisee has invited Jesus to his house and not assume any malicious intent or nefarious motive. It may be true that “they were watching him closely,” but wouldn’t anyone?  Jesus was an oddity, an unknown quantity, a dark horse rabbi coming up from nowhere, from Nazareth (can anything good come from Nazareth?), untrained, and unschooled, yet commanding great respect, healing and doing great miracles. Of course they were watching him closely.

If it seems that I’m going out of my way here at the beginning to present the Pharisees as the “good guys,” that is because I am. They were not, as I said earlier, one dimensional melodrama villains. They were decent people, for the most part, trying to live godly lives as they understood those terms.

And Jesus is eating the Sabbath meal with them. This is when things take a turn for the confrontational. And, it should be noted, it is not the Pharisees, the good guys, who cause this confrontation. It is Jesus. They’re eating and sharing the Sabbath meal together when, all of a sudden, “in front of him was a man who had dropsy.”

Dropsy is an old fashioned, out-of-date medical term for what we would today call edema, a condition marked by the buildup of watery fluids in the cavities and tissues of the body. The body begins to swell with the buildup of this fluid, and it can cause serious pain. Edema is actually a symptom of several other issues rather than a disease itself.

Jesus sees this swollen man and immediately turns on the lawyers and Pharisees around the table. “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” Jesus starts the fight, fires the first shot, throws the first punch. Jesus is the one who makes a scene, not the Pharisees.

The healing of the man with Dropsy could have waited; there was nothing particularly life threatening about the condition. It wasn’t a life or death, emergency situation. Jesus could have, easily, waited a few hours for the sun to set in the western sky, and then healed the man with no Sabbath day issues whatsoever. And it’s not even clear that there is a Sabbath day violation here. Jesus doesn’t actually do any work. “The matter is simple: no work was performed. If Jesus had had to remove a rock which was crushing a man’s hand, there would have been a legal principal at issue: was the man’s life in danger, or could the work have waited for the sun to set? But the laying on of hands is not work, and no physical action of any kind is reported” (Sanders 266).

Jesus deliberately and purposefully provoked a fight. He made an issue out of a non-issue, and phrased his emphatic question in a provocative way so as to force his audience to make a definitive answer. (Jeremias 103) This, generally, is not the polite behavior of an invited guest. The lawyers and Pharisees sit in a stunned silence. Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, seems to delight in shutting them down. (Luke 13.17) Perhaps we might envision him singing the old Beach Boys song: “Shut it off, shut it off, buddy, now I shut you down” (Wilson).

Jesus asked them a question, again deliberately phrasing his question so as to provoke them: “If one of you has a child,” (or in some manuscripts, “an ass” (and those two are sometimes indistinguishable, aren’t they…)) “or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they are still stunned. It’s a loaded question like, “are you still beating your mother?” The Pharisees and lawyers cannot answer.

Jesus heals the man swollen with excessive fluid and sends him on his way, but Jesus isn’t through with the Pharisees and lawyers around the table. He now tells two parables – first to the guests of this Sabbath meal, and second to the host of the feast – parables that don’t really sound like parables. We are used to thinking of parables as “earthly stories with heavenly meaning,” to use the phrase some of us learned in Sunday school. But the Greek word “parable” like its Hebrew equivalent, “masal” had a wide range of definitions and categories; parables could be: similitudes, allegories, fables, proverbs, riddles, symbols, apologies, arguments, jests, comparisons, or, as in our text this morning, behavioral rules. (Jeremias 20) Jesus gives them parables - rules for ethical behavior - that challenge their perceived roles in the social order within the Kingdom of God.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them this parable (or behavioral rule): “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place.’ But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher,’ then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Honor was a big deal in that time and place (as it is still today, even if we are not as consciously aware of it as Jesus’ audience was). Honor was, “to some extent, the product of birth, family, and wealth, it was sustained by social recognition. It was not just social status, but also the regard one felt entitled to in virtue of that status. … Much behavior was therefore dictated by the desire to acquire, preserve, or display honor and to avoid its opposite, shame” (Borg 212).

The most important guests, the most dignified, the most honored guests, distinguished by age or social standing (Jeremias 192) would arrive last, making a grand entrance, seen and marveled at by everyone, and taking their assumed position close to the head of the table. The humiliated guest, the one who assumed too much, assumed a seat that wasn’t for him, would be forced to take the lowest seat at the far end of the table, because all the other seats would have been filled by that time.

Jesus instructs his audience to humble themselves before others, and before God, because in the coming kingdom, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This has been the central them of Jesus’ gospel, even from the time before he was born. When Mary learned of his conception from the angel Gabriel she sang a radical and revolutionary song of this reversal:

“…he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.” (Luke 2: 52 NRSV)

Then to his host Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, or your brothers, or your relatives, or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

This is, again, the great reversal, the “messianic inversion,” in the perspective of God’s kingdom, “the despised and the insignificant come first” (Gutiérrez 215).

And this is why I set out at the beginning to emphasize that the Pharisees and lawyers were the good guys, people of respect and honor. The Pharisees really were the good guys, which is why the great reversal is so great, so provocative, so shocking. Traditional cultural expectations are turned upside down (Crossan 93).Those who are honored in this life for their position, their wealth, their good looks, their distinguished family, their education, their job title will be shunted down to the end of the table, or replaced by the crippled, the broken, the blind, the lame and the destitute. Jesus’ parable is intended to be offensive; it is supposed to shock. It is rude and upsetting.

“Those who seek places of honor, those who feel important, those who do everything out of their love of power and positions of honor will not be invited to the banquet of the Kingdom. … They have already received their reward” (Gutiérrez 216).

From table manners and practical wisdom, Jesus has launched into God’s eschatological activity, which is nothing less than the humbling of the proud and the exaltation of the lowly. (Jeremias 193) Jesus has, so to speak, flipped the table, and upset the party to put into practice that gospel message: that God has raised up the lowly.

If that message offends, if that message wounds, if that message disturbs us, perhaps we need to reevaluate which seat we’ve assumed for ourselves at the banquet table.

Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. New York, NY: Haper Collins, 2006. Print.

Crossan, John Dominick. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2012. Print.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. Trans. Colett Joly Dees. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997. Print.

Jeremias, Joachin. The Parables of Jesus 2nd Revised Ed. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. Print.

Porter, Stanley E. Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament. New York, NY: Brill, 1997. Print.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985. Print.

Wilson, Brian and Roger Christian. “Shut Down.” Surfin’ U.S.A.  Capitol Records. 1963. 

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