Sunday, August 29, 2010
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "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,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down 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 those who humble themselves will be exalted." He said also to the one who had invited him, "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.
CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges on how to live and what to value. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles and gods walking the earth. And so what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before answering their question. “Grace.”
Today’s reading from Luke is a parable – a parable Jesus tells to shatter the anti¬-grace tendencies that exist within our hearts. Jesus’ parable on “taking the lowest place” is not advice on how to behave at a party. God did not become human to save us from social embarrassment. No, Jesus’ parable is meant to subvert our anti¬-grace tendencies. Jesus wants to kill that piece within each one of us that seeks to exalt ourselves in the sight of God.
Now, a little background info before moving on. Tonight’s Gospel takes place at the head Pharisees’ house – the leading person of the leading group that opposes Jesus’ work. Luke also says the Pharisees “were watching him closely,” but a better translation is “hostilely observing.” It’s actually a word Luke links with assassination plots. And so the emotional tone of tonight’s Gospel is bitter hostility. People are angry with Jesus and they’re offended. Why?
Well, the Pharisees were obsessed with their own religious performance. Ethnically speaking, they were Jewish – part of God’s covenant people – and by virtue of their birth they were promised a share in the Kingdom of God, which the Bible compares to a great wedding banquet. In other words, Pharisees were insiders and that made them feel special. But not only that, the Pharisees were meticulous rule followers. They didn’t just have the law; they kept it to the tee. And because of that the Pharisees thought they were superior to people who were poor or unclean or overtly sinful or not Jewish. And what do people do when they feel superior to others? They exalt themselves.
There’s a story about Winston Churchill in the later years of his life. Apparently, upon exiting his car the former Prime Minister chided his driver for being rude. “Sir,” said the driver in response, “you were first rude to me.” And as Churchill exited the car he was heard to say under his breath. “Yes, but I am a great man.” Yes both of us were rude. I’ll give you that. But I – I am a great man.
The Pharisees, in their own eyes, were great men –by virtue of their birth and by virtue of their performance. And because of that they pushed themselves forward in the sight of God believing that God delighted in their purity, their meticulous rule keeping, and their utter refusal to associate with people they deemed unclean. And so why is Jesus’ parable so emotionally charged? Because Jesus has been consistently making claims about himself and his work that offend and shatter their anti-grace tendencies. “Keep putting yourself forward in the sight of God,” Jesus said, “and you’re going to be humbled. The great wedding banquet is on its way, but if you think you’re getting in because of your birth or performance – if you put yourself forward in the sight of God and presume to take the highest place – then guess what? You can’t come. God’s invitation,” Jesus said, “is for one group and one group only – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” And of course everything about Jesus’ life reiterated this teaching. He treated nobodies like kings and freaks like celebrities. Jesus embraced people that everyone assumed wasn’t invited to the banquet. And what was his message? “Good news, you can come too after all.” No. Jesus’ word was so much more offensive and beautiful than that. “Friend,” he said to the trash of the earth, “Move up higher. Take the seat of honor at my Father’s banquet.” Grace. That is what makes Christianity unique, and when properly understood it’s either offensive or it’s beautiful.
And so this parable demands that we ask ourselves a question. What anti-grace tendencies are keeping us out of the banquet? “None! Right? We love grace.” But do we? For example, if there’s something we’ve done that we know God’s forgiven us for but we can’t forgive ourselves, we find grace offensive. Don’t mistake that for humility. It’s the worst kind of pride. It means we’re obsessed with our own performance. Or maybe we’re proud of where we are in life right now instead of being grateful, and have a problem with slackers and underachievers who aren’t quite as gifted. Don’t mistake that for responsibility. It’s the worst kind of ignorance. It means we’ve forgotten that everything we have, including our intellect and our work ethic, is a gift of sheer grace. Now, these are just a few of the ways we find grace offensive, but of course it doesn’t stop here. And so we have to ask ourselves. Do we have any anti-grace tendencies keeping us out of the banquet?
Well, after hearing today’s Gospel, which of the following prayers rings more true? God, give me grace to like serving the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. I know you love them, teach me to like them enough to serve them. Or, prayer #2 – God thank you for inviting me to the banquet. I’m poor in spirit. I’m crippled by sin. You tell me to walk humbly beside you but I’m lame. You tell me to behold your beauty but I’m blind. I don’t deserve it but I’m so grateful – thank you for inviting me to the banquet.
You see it’s not that the first prayer is a bad one. But behind the prayer that we’ll learn to like the unfortunate is a subtle belief that you and I are great and that Christianity is primarily an ethical challenge to love people that aren’t so great. But Christianity isn’t about great people learning to love people that aren’t great. It’s about a great God – a great God that chooses to love, save, and bless people that aren’t great at all. Christianity is not primarily an ethical challenge. Christianity is first and foremost about grace.
Jesus’ parable begins, “when you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet.” You see the great irony is that we are invited, not as a guest but as the bride. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ first miracle takes place at a wedding banquet. That miracle was a sign, a pointer to the great wedding that awaits our world – a wedding between Christ and His Church. God’s intention has always been to marry His people. But as Proverbs puts it, we can’t put ourselves forward in the presence of the King. We’re sinful and fragile people, completely unfit to seek God’s hand in marriage. Humanity seeking out God would be like a deformed troll proposing to a supermodel. God is in so much higher of a place.
And so do you see the irony of the parable? The One who told it – who John calls “full of grace and truth” – is seeking our hand in marriage. And because we could not go where He was, He came to where we are. And though no one on earth was more distinguished than Jesus, He did not sit down at the place of honor. But on the cross, Jesus sat down at the lowest place possible. In a world that seeks to exalt itself, Jesus chose to be humbled. In a world that seeks to honor itself, Jesus chose to be shamed. In a world that seeks to move up higher and higher and higher, the bridegroom chose to move down lower and lower and lower just so he could get back his bride.
And why? Because Jesus wants to speak four grace-filled words to anyone humble enough to hear them. “Friend – move up higher.” This is what Luke Timothy Johnson says about this verse. “To be greeted as friend and invited higher suggests a special intimacy and, more than that, equality with the host.” In other words, in calling us friend Jesus is asking His Father to treat us as his equal. And if that makes you uncomfortable, let me ask you this. What do you think marriage is? Paul says we’re co-heirs with Christ. Peter says God is grafting us into the divine nature. Jesus tells us that when the Kingdom of God comes He will serve us. In other words, what Jesus does for each of us is stand in His Father’s presence and say, “Give this person my place. On the cross I took their place. Give this person my place. Father, I want them to be honored in your presence.” Grace.
Now in just a moment we’ll get a foretaste of God’s future wedding banquet in the Eucharist. And so let us not forget who’s invited. The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. That’s it. My prayer is that we’ll be humble enough to understand what the Pharisees didn’t. Jesus was talking about us.