Palm Sunday (March 24 2013) found the folks at Crafton Heights continuing our Lenten journey in which we explore biblical meals that have shaped us. In keeping with the festal nature of this day, we considered Luke 14:1-24 and the things that passage reveals about God’s character.
Suppose someone said to you, “Hey, I turned on the Penguins game the other night and as the cameras panned the crowd, I’m sure I saw Pastor Dave and Sharon there.” You might respond, “Wow, good for them. I know that Dave likes watching hockey. Glad he got seats.”
But what if your friend said, “You won’t believe what I saw the other night! I turned on the Pens game, and there in the crowd, I’m sure it was Pastor Dave and Sharon. It was awesome! He had painted his shirt off and his entire chest was black and gold and Sharon had her face painted to match.” I have a hunch you might say, “Really? That sure doesn’t sound like something Dave and Sharon are likely to do… I wonder if it was really them that you saw…”
Do you know the feeling when you hear something about someone else and it just doesn’t fit with what you know to be true about them?
I had that feeling when I was reading through Luke this week. I’ve read this passage a hundred times and not really thought twice about it, but this week, something stuck out for me.
Oh, it starts pretty predictably. Jesus is on his way to a dinner party – this one hosted by a Pharisee. In case you aren’t fluent in Bible-ese, the Pharisees were a group of religious leaders who had a good bit of control in Jerusalem at that time. They were known to be eager to keep many of the significant portions of the Mosaic Law, and they stressed personal piety and purity whenever they had the chance. By and large, the Pharisees did not like Jesus too well – many of them were afraid that he would upset the tenuous balance that they’d set up with the Romans and that things would get worse for the Jews. The Pharisees were the group of religious people who were most responsible for the arrest and death of Jesus.
But as I was saying, Jesus goes out and just happens to be the guest of a prominent Pharisee for a Sabbath meal. Nothing out of line there – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Jesus. And Luke goes out of his way to tell us that the Pharisees are keeping an eye on Jesus – they are apparently waiting for him to fall into some sort of error or miscue. Again, nothing surprising here. They did that a lot.
Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me: Jesus is indoors, having dinner, and “behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.” Now, on the one hand, it’s not uncommon for Jesus to be out and about and having folks with disfiguring diseases show up out of nowhere. But here he is, in the home of a man who was by definition obsessed with purity and cleanliness, and all of a sudden he finds that across the table from him sits one who has dropsy.
Another name for dropsy is edema. It’s a bloating or swelling of the limbs or other parts of the body caused by an inability to process fluids correctly. People with this disease frequently display oozing from pores or bodily cavities. It is not a pleasant affliction. And whereas I wouldn’t put it past the Pharisees to dig up someone who was suffering some affliction and throw him or her in front of Jesus to see what Jesus would do about it, I find it hard to believe that a Pharisee would invite a person oozing bodily fluids – and therefore an unclean person – into his own home. Add to that the fact that this sick man is sitting right smack dab in front of Jesus…
If you’re having dinner and you’re the guest of honor, who sits across from you? The host.
So here’s what I think: that the man who had this debilitating sickness was the host, or at least a prominent Pharisee. I don’t think that the sick man was a ringer brought in to test Jesus. I think that he was one that was known to the people in the room.
And that theory is supported, in my mind, by the fact that when Jesus tried to engage the folks in the room on the topic of who could be healed, and when, he was met with silence. I mean, nobody thinks we ought to be out there working on the Sabbath or anything, but we all know that old Bob has struggled with that oozing for a long time. It was kind of gross. We felt sorry for him. And so if Jesus wants to talk about healing him, well, I’m not going to say anything, are you?
And then look at what happens. Jesus “took him”. That languages expresses the fact that Jesus reached across the table and held onto the man who was sick. And Jesus healed him. And Jesus “let him go”. Some of your translations might say that Jesus “sent him away”. The word that is used there, apoluo, is often translated “sent away”. But in Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman and says that she has been “set free” – and he uses the same word.
Here’s what I think happened: Jesus was the honored guest in this sick man’s home. He saw the man struggling with the disease, and he restored the Pharisee to himself. He set him free from that which was binding him. And nobody said anything because unlike those strangers that they often brought to Jesus, this sick man was known to the other people at the table. So they don’t say anything at all.
Next, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and he starts to watch them. This is very interesting, because usually the shoe is on the other foot and they are watching him. But he sees them jockeying for positions of honor at the table. Which means that he hasn’t really irritated them yet, if they are all fighting to get a little closer to him. Which implies, at least to me, that it was good old Bob, and not some run-of-the-mill schmo, who got healed that day.
Given all that, since they are making nicey-nice with each other for a change, Jesus decides to give the Pharisees a little friendly advice about social situations that winds up bringing significant insight into the character of God.
You heard what he said: Meals are not a power trip, or a way to exercise authority over someone else. The dinner cards are not primarily a strategy to see who is worthiest. Be humble. Accept yourself. Maybe you will be recognized and honored. Maybe you won’t be. It doesn’t really matter. The meal is a way to bring the community, including you, including me, including that one over there, together. And then Jesus gets going and suggests that in fact, the nature of God’s love is such that we ought to seek to include those who are most likely to feel excluded.
Well, now he’s on a roll. He’s got their attention; old Bob is sitting up and is the picture of health, and so Jesus spins them one of his patented parables.
“A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:16-24, RSV)
Now here’s what you need to know about the culture of that time: when you were planning a feast, there were at least two sets of invitations that went out. First, there was some sort of a vague “Save the date” notice that put the event on the social calendar. You might say, “Look, I just want you folks to know that in about two months, we are going to go crazy! I mean, we’re gonna have a real blow out.” And then you get to work doing all those things that take time – making wine, making cheese, preparing animals, and so on. You’ve let people know to be on the lookout, and now you are getting ready.
Then, when all the food and drink are prepared, you send out a second set of invitations – “Come and get it!,” you say. “Dinner is served…”
It’s like this. Let’s say that I said, “Look, I’m not sure exactly when this is going to happen, but some time during the month of April, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis are going to be coming to worship at CHUP, and they are going to be giving away a few sets of Steeler season tickets for free to a few random worshipers.” If I said that, and if you believed me, my hunch is that many of you would arrange your schedules so as to ensure that you’d be available on Sunday mornings during the month of April, right? If you thought that something valuable was going to be given to you in that time window, you’d make arrangements to be ready to receive it.
In the parable, that’s not the case. Even though the whole village has been notified that the feast is being prepared, some folks just can’t be bothered. One guy is out there buying property. Another chucklehead just bought a team of oxen. And the third guy committed the worst offense when he got married and scheduled his wedding feast at the exact same time as yours.
Friends, listen: buying property, or oxen, or even getting married – all of these are good and noble things. But each of them is schedulable. Each of these conflicts could have been easily avoided. What the property buyer, the oxen purchaser, and the groomsman are saying to the host is essentially, “Yeah, well, thanks and all. Good luck with the party. It sounds like an ok time; but to be honest, it’s not really my crowd.”
And yet a crowd is precisely what the host wants, for some reason. We aren’t sure why, but the main thing that Luke communicates here is that the host wants his house to be filled – and so the people who are out in the fields working, or begging; the poor and the lame – whoever! – are compelled to come in.
Because the host wants a full house. And what ends up happening is that the people who knew about the party when the first set of invitations were sent out and yet excluded themselves anyway – they believed that they were not healthy enough, or not wealthy enough, or not good enough for some other reason suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in a position where they are able to receive the hospitality of the host. What happens to these poor creatures who are brought unprepared into the wedding feast is in that way very similar to the Pharisee who wound up being the center of a healing miracle on a Sabbath day.
There is a word of warning here to those who are sure that God is saving them a special seat right between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit at the heavenly banquet. Jesus says, “Simmer down there, sailor. Nobody is that good. God is not particularly impressed with your religiosity, or your holiness, your giving or your merit badges.”
And there is a word of hope here to those who wonder what would happen if people found out what you were really like…Jesus says, “You know, I know everything about you – and you need to know that God is saving a spot for you!”
The healing of the man at dinner, the parable of the Wedding Feast, and the message of Palm Sunday are, in my mind, synonymous. God is not looking to find a bunch of eligible, sin-free, pure people to honor. Instead, God is out in the streets and the lanes, the highways and the hedges turning the place upside down looking for people who are willing to come to the party on God’s terms.
Here’s what breaks my heart about church: when my friends say, “You know, I’m embarrassed to go to church. How can I show up there?” As if God would have been a little more impressed with you before you had the affair or got high or went to prison or gossiped about your neighbor.
Here’s what you need to know about God: He wants you. Why? Beats me. I have no idea why he cares for you so much. But for reasons best known to him, he loves you. Seriously, he does. And here, Jesus is saying, “Don’t make me come out there looking for you. Come to the party, already. Accept the grace that is offered to you.”
Can you join the man who had dropsy and be set free from whatever is holding you back? I can guarantee you’re not going to get any better offers. Know that. Plan on that. And give thanks to the God who loves you like nobody’s business, and who is calling you to come to the party. Now. Just the way you are.
Thanks be to that God! Amen.