August 28, 2016, In Which Jesus Attends a Dinner Party and Offends Everyone – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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If you have ever read the Little House books, you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the books from her memories growing up as a child in the pioneer days. And one of the challenges the pioneer families faced was how to educate their children. So whenever possible, pioneer communities would form schools, and hire young single teachers to teach in one-room schoolhouses with students of every age. And since they couldn’t pay the teachers very much they provided housing by each family taking turns boarding the teacher for a month or so at a time. I can only imagine that when it was your family’s turn to board the teacher, everybody was expected to be on their absolute best behavior, hands washed, using good grammar, and not speaking unless spoken to – those rules were observed much more strictly in those days than they are today, even when the teacher wasn’t sitting at the dinner table.
Today’s reading is the story of a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee, when the Teacher – Jesus himself – was sitting at the table. And it must have been one of the most awkward, uncomfortable dinner party recorded in any of the gospels (although Jesus did have a habit of making his opponents squirm in all sorts of situations). If I were to choose a title for this 14th chapter of Luke, I might call it “Jesus Attends a Dinner Party and Offends Everybody”. In the course of this meal, Jesus offended the respected teachers of the Jews, the honored guests, and the host who had invited him. Luke says in verse one that Jesus went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees for Sabbath-day dinner, and “they were all watching him closely”, hoping to catch him in some error or breach of law, hoping for an excuse to condemn him, and his teaching. But as the chapter continues, Jesus turns the tables on them. He has his eye on them, all those people reclining at table with him, and he challenges every single one of them.
First, he notices that there is a man present who is suffering from dropsy. Dropsy is what we call edema; it’s a condition in which fluids accumulate in the tissues of the body. It’s not urgent, and in itself it isn’t life-threatening, but it is uncomfortable and unpleasant, and it is generally a symptom of some bigger problem. Jesus sees the man, and he poses a question to the lawyers and Pharisees around him, who are all very careful observers of the law, which included the observance of the Sabbath day. “Is it lawful,” he asked them, one eye on the man with dropsy, and another on the faces of his dinner companions. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They most certainly did not think it was lawful, but not a one of them dared to say anything in reply; Jesus had a reputation for coming on the better end of such disputations.
And so Jesus simply reached out and healed the man and sent him on his way. And then he said, “Let me ask you another question: if your son, or even your ox, fell into a well on the Sabbath day, how many of you would think twice before running to pull them out?” And still, no one had an answer.
And as an uncomfortable silence continued around that table, Jesus was observing the guests that entered. He noticed that they looked around as they came in, wanting to find a place of honor to sit in. So he turned to these guests – most certainly they were important, wealthy citizens, who were highly respected even among the rulers of the synagogue. No one questioned their right to the best seats. Except Jesus. He looked right at them and told a story, about people who attend a wedding and sit in the choice seats. “As soon as somebody more important arrives,” he told them, “you’ll be asked to make room for them and you’ll have to move down to the cheap seats in disgrace. You’d be a lot smarter to sit in a humble place, where the host might come and invite you to move up. People who exalt themselves end up getting put down. It’s the people who humble themselves who are raised up.”
Then Jesus turned his eye on the man who invited him. He had a word for his host as well. “And you, when you give these parties,” Jesus said to him, “don’t invite all your rich, influential friends. These people are sure to invite you back and you’ll be repaid. No, invite people who can’t pay you back: the poor, the disabled, the blind. Then you will really be blessed, because you will be rewarded by God himself on the day when the righteous are resurrected.”
If we had been there for that dinner party, I am absolutely sure that we would have found ourselves squirming in our seats at some point or other, just like the guests that were there that day. Because the truth is, the teaching of Jesus often makes us uncomfortable; it makes us uncomfortable whenever we fall short of his goodness and love and grace. And we fall short all the time. We can comfortably sit back and point our fingers at the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees, or the pride of the wealthy guests, or the self-centeredness of the host. But just let Jesus look you in the eye – have any of us ever chosen to play it safe instead of going out of our way to offer mercy to someone who was suffering? Have any of us ever prided ourselves in being just a little more important than the next guy? Or how often have any of us, ever, chosen to bring the lame and the blind and the poor into our home instead of our good friends and our beloved family? Can any of us hear the voice of Jesus at this dinner party and not recognize that he is speaking to us? The perfect goodness and wisdom of Jesus are our joy and our hope – but they are also a challenge to us to search our hearts and confess our need to change and grow.
Jesus said in no uncertain terms that he did not come to condemn us. We should never read the words of Jesus and feel like we are being rejected. We should never feel that we are too flawed or weak or just plain old bad to be worthy of his love. You are loved, unconditionally, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean he never wants you to change or grow. The Pharisees at the dinner, his host, the wealthy men who plunked themselves down in the very best seats – Jesus loved them, and it was because he loved them that he called them out in their pride and their selfishness and their hard-heartedness, just like he calls us out when we give in to our pride and selfishness. His discipline is an act of love, as the writer to the Hebrews said, ““My child, pay attention when the Lord corrects you, and do not be discouraged when he rebukes you. Because the Lord corrects everyone he loves, and disciplines everyone he accepts as a child.”
There are so many things we could learn from Jesus’ teaching at the dinner party, but the first is to learn to love his teaching, even when – especially when – it offends us and makes us uncomfortable. You’ve heard it a zillion times before, but it is true enough to hear another zillion times: God loves you just exactly as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you there. He almost never stops us with that traditional bolt of lightning when we are messing up. Much more often he speaks to us through his word, and that still, small voice of the Spirit within us: sometimes opening our eyes to something we just haven’t been able or willing to see, and sometimes just unsettling us, making us uncomfortable in the rut we’ve made for ourselves so that he can help us out of it. We have so many blind spots: not only what we think of as sins, like our natural selfishness and pride, but the things our parents believed, and the community we grew up in, and the accidents of our race and sex and economic status – even the way we practice our faith – all those things make up the comfortable little universe that we can’t see out of by our own efforts; until the Teacher comes to dinner and shakes it up. That discomfort is his gift of love to us, the same as it was to the people at the Pharisee’s dinner party, because when we are teachable, willing to see our need to change – and willing to change – then we grow up further into the fulness of who we were created to be as children of God.