Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14 Commentary
Tell any average child that she is forbidden to look at pages 67-82 of the book sitting on the coffee table in the living room and you can be absolutely certain that the first chance that child gets, she’s going to whisk that book to her room and turn directly to page 67! (I mean, I would!)
The Revised Common Lectionary can be like that. Not very often, but with some frequency, the Lectionary editors ask you to skip a few verses in certain texts. In this case, we are asked not to read or ponder Luke 14:2-6. Next week we will jump ahead to Luke 14:25, skipping also verses 15-24. But like a child who knows what she’s not supposed to look at, this only makes me all-the-more interested in those very verses and in what I am NOT supposed to see.
Luke 14:1-24 are clearly all cut out of a single piece of narrative cloth and anyway all took place over the course of a single dinner party. Each flows into the next and only together do they present the real punch and meaning of this story. So in what follows my ideas will also all flow together across all 24 verses. Those who wish to stay with the strict letter of the Lectionary law may happily cobble together from what follows only those parts that apply to the 9 verses that are technically this week’s Year C Gospel lection. But honestly, I think we need the whole thing.
Too often we treat the parables of Jesus as though they float free of any original context. We collect the parables and treat them like chapters in a book–a parabolic anthology rather like a collection of nursery rhymes or fairy tales. The parables, we seem to think, don’t need an original setting but can be pondered in isolation without losing any of their punch. And there is something to that: most of what we learn in the Parable of the Prodigal Son can be gleaned by looking at the story in isolation (though remembering that Jesus was telling also that parable as a counter-punch to a group of disapproving Pharisees is pretty important, too). Most of the time reviewing the occasion that gave rise to Jesus’ parables will deepen their poignancy. Certainly that is true of Luke 14.
Luke 14:1 tells us that Jesus had been invited for a dinner party at the house of a “prominent Pharisee,” which we could literally translate as a kind of “arch Pharisee” from the Greek archon. The adjective refers to a lead Pharisee, someone who was very high up in the Pharisee leadership structure. So it is likely that this man did not live in a modest row house in Jerusalem but probably occupied a ritzy and large home to which, on this particular Sabbath, a lot of people had been invited. In fact, it may well have been the case that a Sabbath noon invitation to this man’s house was the hottest ticket in town.
But why was Jesus invited? He was not a real popular person among the Pharisees, after all. Based on the text, I suspect he was not invited out of love. But I cannot tell just what the motive really was, either. There are several possibilities. Perhaps it was borne out of social necessity–the host didn’t really want to invite him but given his current popularity, etiquette demanded that they not snub this new rabbi. Or perhaps there was an element of vanity in the invitation–precisely because Jesus’ star seemed to be rising just then, having him for dinner would be yet another feather in this Pharisee’s social cap.
More darkly, however, it may also have been the case that they were setting Jesus up. Personally, I tilt this direction based on the fact that in verse 1 we are told that Jesus was being “very carefully watched.” As the mobster Michael Corleone says in The Godfather Part II, the most valuable lesson his mafia father ever taught him was “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.” Sometimes the best strategy to bring down your enemy is to get cozy with him, make him relax and let his guard down. Because then he might slip up, divulge a piece of information he shouldn’t reveal. (Alas poor Fredo in The Godfather! Michael made his brother Fredo relax enough to slip up and inadvertently reveal he had betrayed Michael, leading to the iconic scene when Michael gives Fredo the kiss of death as he tells him he knows the truth now. “It was you, Fredo. You break my heart!”)
I suspect that this dynamic was partly behind this Pharisee’s having Jesus for dinner. As such, it is neither accidental nor coincidental that Jesus immediately encounters a man with dropsy. Dropsy was what today we would call edema, which likely meant his breathing was labored, his face, legs, feet, and hands were swollen because of a cardio-pulmonary problem that caused fluid to build up throughout his body. Likely he looked pathetic and whereas today a doctor would prescribe Lasix or some other such diuretic to make his renal system go full bore, back then there were probably few effective treatments.
In any event, lo and behold this is the first person Jesus meets up with at the pre-dinner punch bowl. And the Pharisees watched Jesus carefully. Could this Jesus, reputed to be a healer, resist the urge (considering it was the Sabbath) to help this fellow? Initially Jesus seems to be the epitome of a polite guest, asking his host and the others, “Would it be all right by you if I healed this man? Is that a lawful thing to do on the Sabbath?”
Did they all think this was such an obvious question it did not require an answer? Or did the way they all fixed Jesus in their collective glare as much as tell Jesus that of course they considered it unlawful. But their silence dared Jesus to do it anyway. So he does. He then quotes some laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that allow exceptions to the Sabbath injunctions against not working in the cases of sick children or suffering animals. It was an “in your face” kind of thing for Jesus to say, shaming them for their disapproval of this poor man’s healing and, as the text makes clear, leaving them with nothing to say.
The dinner party is off to a really rocky start! But soon the butler rings his little bell, letting people know it is time to be seated for the meal. And with a wry grin on his face, Jesus takes note of the polite, yet indisputable, jostling that begins as this guest and that guest angles his way toward the seats closest to the host’s chair. Once again it is Jesus who takes the lead. “You know I was just thinking: when someone invites you to a wedding, don’t try to sit at the head table on your own initiative. Next thing you know the host has to ask you to move since that seat had been reserved for someone else and then you will be so dreadfully embarrassed! Just sit in the back of the room. It’s the humble way to go at life and anyway if then the host requests you to sit closer to the front of the room, you will have nothing to feel shame-faced about but will actually be honored.”
Did the people blush? I imagine once Jesus said this none-too-subtle rebuke of all those snooty dinner guests that a lot of them stopped in their tracks and, with downcast eyes, just plopped into the seat closest to them at that very moment.
Jesus is on a roll now. It’s not Emily Post by a long shot, but still he plunges forward. Now he addresses his host directly but what Jesus does is essentially critique the guest list for that very dinner party on that very day! Jesus says, “When you throw a party, don’t invite friends, brothers, and rich people.” (He was describing every last person around the table!) “Instead,” Jesus goes on, “invite the poor, the blind, and the crippled.” And by this point, if I am seated at that table, I am ready to skulk away. The party is over. All anybody wanted to do was leave, and quickly!
So, not knowing what else to do or say, one of the guests blurts out a pious and pithy greeting card-like aphorism, “Blessed is the man who eats at the feast in the kingdom of God!” Although it was related to what Jesus had just been saying about dinner guests and the like, I suspect this man said what he did to try to smooth things over, shifting the topic a bit. Today it would be like dealing with an awkward situation by blurting out, “Hey, how ’bout those Yankees, huh?” or “Interesting weather we’ve been having lately.” The current dinner party was spiraling into chaos, so this well-meaning guest points forward to what everyone could only hope would be a far happier banquet one day by and by in the kingdom of God.
But it didn’t work. Jesus pipes back up and as much as says, “Speaking of the kingdom of God . . .” and then goes on to tell a parable. He tells a story about a situation like the party they were all attending just then. A rich man issues a grand invitation. But every last person who had been invited ends up refusing to come. They all have different excuses, but the implication in this parable is obvious: these guests had conspired with one another to avoid this banquet like the plague. Some commentators think that the fatal flaw of these would-be guests is greed. They are too preoccupied with their possessions and with their pleasures in life.
But that clearly is not Jesus’ intention. Following on Jesus’ words in verses 12-14 about his own preference for dinner parties made up of the blind, lame, poor, crippled, and other such social outcasts, the implication is that the people in the parable who turned down the invitation did so out of fear that they would have to break bread with a blind man or with some poor person with bad breath. Whether the host in Jesus’ parable represents Jesus himself or his heavenly Father, either way we know up front (based on the course of Jesus’ ministry thus far) that it would not be at all unusual if his guest list proved to be much more varied and diverse than the guest list of that Pharisee in whose house Jesus told this story.
The last line of this parable has the host saying, “Those invited will not get a taste of my banquet.” It seems an odd thing to say. After all, neither did they want a taste of it. Yet just that may be the problem. C.S. Lewis once mused that perhaps in the end the people who end up in hell will get there not because God sent them there but rather by their own choosing. If someone lives his whole life without ever once being willing to say to God, “Your will be done,” perhaps the day will come when by virtue of that choice God will say to that person, “Very well then, YOUR will be done. You’ve wanted no part of me and so that is the way it will stay, too.”
Luke doesn’t tell us how that Sabbath-day dinner party ended. But you have the feeling that when Jesus left, his host did not smile and say, “Come again!” In fact, in the balance of Luke’s gospel you will never again read that Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority. The next dinner party Jesus attends is at the beginning of Luke 15 but this time he is the guest of tax collectors and “sinners.”
We know who Jesus’ kind of people were. The question to ask of ourselves and of our congregations in a sermon on Luke 14 is whether Jesus’ kind of people are our kind of people.
In verse 1 of Luke 14, the Greek literally says that Jesus went to the house of the arch-Pharisee (the archon in Greek) “phagein arton,” or literally, “to eat bread.” Granted that “artos” can mean food more broadly defined and so could be a kind of general word for “dinner.” But since breaking bread was in Jesus’ day symbolic of having a certain solidarity with those with whom you share the loaf, the overt inclusion of “bread” in Luke 14:1 may indeed be Luke’s way of kicking off a passage that will ultimately be all about having solidarity with the least, last, and lost people in this world.
In his book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” Philip Yancey asserts something that I am certain must have been true. Yancey noted that in too many of the movies that have been made about Jesus, the actor who portrays the carpenter’s son from Nazareth often comes across very flat. Most of his words are delivered in a kind of monotone and his demeanor is placid to the point of being dull. But based on the gospels, Yancey says that Jesus must have been a whole lot happier-looking and more outwardly joyful than that. People really liked being around Jesus. He was such a popular dinner guest that when his enemies wanted to say something bad about him, they accused him of being a glutton and a wine-bibber.
People were attracted to Jesus because he exuded joy. However, as Luke 14 reveals, Jesus was not above being the kind of dinner guest you hope you never get! Have you ever been at a dinner party where something happens that makes you want to crawl under the table (if not simply flee into the night)? Maybe there was a political discussion around the dinner table that got just a little too heated. Maybe one of the guests inadvertently prattled on and on in highly critical tones about what a wretched person Mary Jones is, only to find out too late that Mary Jones is the host’s sister-in-law. Whatever the cause, sometimes it happens that a good meal is spoiled when some of the guests get angry, blush in deep purple embarrassment, or well up with tears at some hurtful remark.
At the dinner party in Luke 14, Jesus made any number of remarks that may have made at least a few guests want to crawl under the table! Jesus wasn’t being rude, however, just poignant.
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