October 15, 2017
Last week, we watched as Jesus did the unthinkable: he touched a leper, an “untouchable.” He broke the law. He violated all sense of common decency. In a culture in which cleanliness was everything, he made himself unclean—deliberately and intentionally. He did this because there was no excuse not to treat this human being as a human being and do what he could to help. The law and the culture said, “No!” The law and the culture gave Jesus every reason to treat the leper as something far less than human. Jesus looked everyone in the eye and said, “There’s no way!”
There would be lots of excuses to not treat the leper as a person. “I have a family to support. I can’t afford to get sick!” “He just makes me so uncomfortable!” “I hear he’s like that because he was an awful person to begin with or because his ancestors did something to offend God. I’m not getting in God’s way!” Everyone could float these excuses past one another until everyone arrived at an excuse with which they could live…except for that annoying tendency that Jesus had to say, “No, really…there is no excuse! People are people. Anything that you come up with that allows you to treat a person as less than a person is just your latest excuse.”
So… however reluctantly… we might want to come to grips with this truth. Everyone deserves respect and care and compassion. I’m meant to look at the person who makes me uncomfortable, who challenges my beliefs, who “pushes my buttons,” and not just ‘tolerate’ them. I am called to love them. Just this alone is a gigantic challenge. Search the landscape of your life and find the most annoying person you can find and realize that person is the one whom God is challenging you to love. Even if we get the point…theoretically…it is a tough one to put into action. The truth is though that the person whom I totally struggle to love is just as much God’s beloved child as I am. (And either side of that statement can—at different times—make my head feel like it is going to explode!) God loves that person? God loves me?
As if that’s not enough, this morning, Jesus pushes things a bit farther. Not only is it the case that everyone is included in God’s love and no one can be excluded, it is also the case that every one of those people is just as invited to live as God’s people as I am. Do you remember the old Groucho Marx line: “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member!” Long before Groucho, Jesus spent his time teaching the overlooked and ignored that they were far more loved than they had been taught. At the same time, he looked at the folks who were full of themselves and taught them that they might want to try being a little more full of the presence of God. Jesus tended to deliver that message in parables, stories that invited the listeners in and then delivered the truth that they really didn’t want to hear. This is exactly what is going on in our text for this morning…
At the fourteenth chapter of Luke begins, Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee for dinner on the Sabbath. He is being “hawked” by the powers that be. They are just waiting for him to cross the line and break the law. In walks a man with “dropsy.” (A coincidence? I don’t think so!) Here is a test. This man is in unrelenting gastric distress—of that, everyone would have been immediately aware. This is exactly the kind of guy Jesus cares about and exactly the kind of guy the germaphobes would have wanted to avoid. (Even though the notion of “germs” was centuries away from being understood!) The real issue here is that it is the Sabbath and no work is supposed to take place. If Jesus heals the man he will be in trouble, especially in the Pharisee’s home. So, Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus turns the tables on the lawyers. They are silent.
Having made the authorities super uncomfortable, he pushes things a step further. (Seriously, people, you really may want to think twice before you invite Jesus to dinner!) He sees how everyone is jockeying for position at the dinner table, trying desperately to sit near the people who had power and influence and wealth. Jesus tells a parable about a whole different kind of social affair where everyone defers the place of honor to someone else, where people humble themselves. Then, he suggests that if you really want to throw a great dinner, invite the people who are never going to be able to return the favor. Throw a special occasion for the poor and the oppressed and the sick. Don’t expect a thing in return! (At which point, everyone had to be thinking, “Wow, this Jesus is a real “party pooper!)
Finally, Jesus tells what we know as “The Parable of the Great Dinner.” Now, in order to hear this parable and realize why it was so offensive to it’s original audience, we need to remind ourselves of one thing. One of the defining beliefs for the people in Jesus’ world was that they were God’s chosen people. This was, in fact, true. They had been slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses to bring them out of slavery. God led them into the Promised Land. They weren’t wrong about that. The problem was the truth they had forgotten.
The truth the people had forgotten was that God did not choose them because they were special or more lovable than anyone else. God chose them because they were the least likely people to be chosen. (Think gym class and picking teams. Everyone knew who the athletes were. Everyone knew who the friends were. Everyone knew who was going to be picked last.) At first, the slaves were dumbfounded and overwhelmed that God would remember them at all much less act on their behalf. However, over time, this gratitude erodes into the belief not that we are God’s chosen people but that we are just plain special.
(If you struggle with this at a basic human level and you happen to be married, just think how easy it is to forget how lucky you felt on the day that you got married. This person loved you enough to stand up and tell everyone that they wanted to spend the rest of their life with you. It is the easiest thing in the world for that gratitude to erode into a self-centered soliloquy in our heads about how lucky they are to have us. Our broken humanity can blind us not only to our own brokenness but to the absolute miracle that despite that brokenness there are people and a God who love us anyway!)
So, the people in Jesus’ day—the one’s who weren’t on the “outs” because they were sick or poor or female, etc.—were in that dangerous position of believing that they were special. Jesus tells them a story that is about people who thought they were special, too. Someone decides to throw a big dinner party and invites a whole bunch of people. When the big day arrives, the master sends his servant out to let everyone know, “Hey…everything is set! It’s time to come!” A “boat load” of folks have been invited. Now, all they need to do is show up!”
This is when the excuses start to fly: “I’ve got to go check out this land I just bought;” “I just bought some oxen. Sorry!” “Dude…I just got married! No can do!” It’s not that they are rude. They express their regrets. The truth is that they just can’t really be bothered to actually show up. They have places to go and people to see. They have investments to tend to. Time is money, after all! These people have plans…
So, the slave goes back to the master and explains about the excuses and the regrets and the investments and the plans. The master is angry. This time, he sends the slave out into the streets to invite the people who never thought the invitation would have ever really applied to folks like them: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. These are the “cursed” people, the rejected people, the invisible people. Though Jesus doesn’t say so, I suspect them not too many of those folks had investments to tend to or a honeymoon to attend: “Let me check my calendar…Yup, I’m in!”
Here’s the kicker though: there is still a ton of food and room at the master’s dinner. So, the master sends the servant back out again, combing the countryside, looking high and low to find more people who would be willing to be guests for something great. The master wants nothing more than a full house. However, he also makes it clear that none of those who made excuses will be filling those open slots: “None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
Now, let’s drive a few points home for us to carry with us and consider in the week ahead. First, if we really think about it, the folks who were invited first may have been invited not because they were cool or successful but because they may have needed that invitation the most. If we think about the master as God, the folks least likely to realize what a gift God’s love is are the folks who think they are most worth loving—who think they are special. They can’t see how amazing the invitation is because they think they are kind of amazing all on their own. They can’t see how important the banquet is because their plans are the most important thing. They can’t be interrupted.
Second, though we’ve all been taught about how perfect we have to be to be loved (by people or by God), in Jesus parable, there is a ton of room in the master’s house. People are not getting shoe horned into this space. The question is how will it ever get filled. This is not a ‘zero-sum’ game. There is room for everyone.
Third, the only thing that can cut anyone off is ourselves. If we are too busy or too special or too preoccupied, then we may miss the invitation. The invited won’t make the meal—not because that’s the kind of God whom God is but because that’s how hard it is to get it through our heads and into our hearts that a God who loves us is a bigger deal than any other deal we have going.
The good news is that you are invited. The bad news is that everyone you would rather not associate with is invited, too. The question is, “Will you be the person who shows up or the person who just keeps piling up the excuses?”