By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 15:1–10 (ESV)
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
One of the most interesting things about Jesus that I have noticed is the types of people that were attracted to him. I have been a part of the church since I was a child. I am not a preacher’s kid but about as close to it as one could get without being one. My stepdad has been the clerk of the meeting for as long as I can remember and he has lead worship for most of my life, which he has passed over to some of the youth in the meeting now. He has served on yearly meeting boards and is comfortable filling the pulpit when the need arises. He says that he was called to be a farmer, but I kind of question that a bit. I think he has been the assistant pastor of my home meeting for my entire life. My dad is also greatly involved in the church. He is a lay minister within the Methodist Church, and I have rarely seen him at church without his guitar. I grew up with church being central to my life. It was just part of life. We worked hard for six days and always worshipped on the seventh. It was rare that we missed any function of the church and many of the vacations that we took revolved around it. If the church needed repairs, we where there. If a class needed taught, we were there. If someone needed a ride to camp or yearly meeting sessions, we loaded that bags and topping off the tank to make the trip. The church has been such a part of my life that I simply cannot imagine life without it.
But I am not the world’s perfect person. I have not always been a saint, let me rephrase that I have never been a saint. I can be selfish. I am often upset without a real reason. I work too much and get pretty stressed out if I do not have money in the bank. I say that I can’t imagine not being in active in a church community, if I am totally honest, I would have to say I would not know what to do if I only worked one job. My entire adult life has been constantly on the go. This has been so much of the case that when James went to basic training I had a bit of an emotional crisis because I did not know for sure if he really knew how much I loved him, I did not know if I took enough time to actually show him how important he was to me. It broke me.
I mention all this because I think I could make a case to be part of a religious class of people. We often speak of the pharisees in negative terms within the church. We act as if they were some bizarre class of religious people but let’s really consider who they were. The pharisees were committed, devoted, practitioners of religious life. If we were to take the name of pharisee off the record and described them in terms most of us would understand, what we would see would be the people that keep a worshiping community together. They were the people that came to the business meeting and provided the time and effort to keep the building in shape. They were the people that contributed financially to the ministries, to the point that the budgets and accounting could be planned. They were wealthy businessmen, they were teachers, and could be counted on to speak a word of encouragement to a gathering. They would be the one that offered a prayer at the banquet or a meeting. We would want pharisees because the pharisees kept the place of worship going. The pharisees were committed. They were knowledgeable, they knew just what to do and when to do it, these were the leaders within a community and the ones that anyone in the religious community would want to keep happy because without the pharisees the future of a worship community would be unsure.
I want us to think about the pharisees in this way because in all reality we have a great deal in common with them. The pharisees are the keepers of tradition and faith. If you are or have ever served on a church committee at any level, if you have ever taught a Sunday school class, or have done any service in the name of the church you have a strong predisposition of being a pharisee. And the more committed you are to a religious group the greater chance you exhibit pharisee like traits. It is nearly impossible to exhibit these types of traits because the more committed you are to a religious faith, the more training you have received, the more leadership you give the more invested you are in that community and the more likely you are to resist any change within that group because it has become part of your identity . I am in that group, not just because I am a pastor, but because I am an elder. But even beyond that, I have been very active in the church from early on in my life, so I was a pharisee type of person even before I entered church leadership, and the fact that I have been accepted in the roles I have filled is because people know that I am a keeper of tradition and faith.
If you were to list off the traits of a pharisee and place it beside a list of my dominate traits there would be very little difference. I am a pharisee. When Jesus speaks out against the pharisees he is speaking to me and people like me. One of the greatest things our Yearly Meeting Lead Superintendent says is that he is a recovering Pharisee. I like that terminology because it is so very true. It is very easy to get so wrapped up into the politics of religion. It is extremely easy to think that our way of thinking is the only way and close our minds off to a different perspective. And when we close our minds off to looking at things from a different perspective, we often prevent participation.
Jesus comes into the scene. He is clearly a devout and religious individual, but he does things a bit different. Because he approaches faith from a different perspective it attracts attention. Everyone in the area is paying attention to Jesus. He has recently healed a woman in the synagogue as well as in the middle of a banquet thrown by a leader of the pharisees. People are following him around the countryside. I completely understand the fear that pharisees might be feeling because people talk to me about these things. I am constantly asked questions about faith. I give my perspective and people give their perspective that might be like an ideology that I personally do not consider to be correct. They speak to me about these things and I want to tell them that they are wrong and list off every reason why. Jesus keeps teaching, and people keep coming to listen. And the pharisees observe that there are people of questionable reputations gathered around Jesus. They already had disdain for Jesus because he did not respect their traditions. He brought a woman into the synagogue and healed her on the sabbath, and he had the nerve to tell them that they were wrong. Now they are looking at Jesus surrounded by tax collectors and sinners and this again upsets them, how can he consider himself righteous when those sorts of people are visiting?
The grumbling that they speak of some scholars liken to the grumbling that the Israelites had during their wonderings in the desert with Moses. We might not think much of this but those grumblings against God and in response to selfish desires. They are grumbling not because Jesus had done anything wrong, but he is not doing it their way.
In response to these grumblings Jesus tells a parable. “A man that has one hundred sheep, loses one and he leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that was lost. And when he finds it, he puts it over his shoulder and rejoices. He is so excited about recovering this lost sheep that he calls all his friends over to rejoice with him.” Why does Jesus tell a parable like this? We must remember who Jesus is speaking to at that time. In the first century, Judea is largely agrarian. Much of their economy is based on providing the basics of life. This means that most of what they produce revolves around food, and probably clothing. When Jesus speaks of a lost sheep, he is speaking about the manner of life the people around him live. We might not quite understand what it might mean to lose a sheep, because it is just an animal. If you were someone that raised sheep today this one sheep would represent approximately $300 for the animal itself. But Sheep are not only raised for their physical bodies each sheep can produce a fleece that can weight approximately twenty pounds, and the current market price for wool depending on the quality can bring in $2 to $10 per pound, so the potential of this sheep is $200 a year. And each sheep can live approximately 10 years, so we are talking about $2300. If this sheep was a female, then this one sheep has the potential of increasing the herd by one to three lambs a year so over the course of this sheep’s lifetime the profit potential of this one sheep can generate is approximately $62,000. How many of us would just let $62,000 walk away? This is being very optimistic, but I think we understand the point. Each lamb is important for those that raise sheep.
In the kingdoms of men, we understand the value of items. Each item that we attribute a value too, we will guard to the best of our ability because those are the things that are going to provide for our lifestyle. This past week the store I work at had its annual inventory. For those that do not work in retail, inventory determines how efficient our store is, because it determines how much inventory we had lost over the past year. When a store loses inventory, it affects the store’s ability to operate. Most people do not think of inventories in the way that people in asset protection do, but when a store loses inventory, it loses sales, and when a store lose sales, they lose profit. In the stores that I have worked at we have lost around a half of a million dollars a year. This loss represents many things. But the most important thing is that it means the limitation of at least ten jobs.
This is economics but Jesus is speaking to people whose minds are caught in the kingdoms of men. Their minds revolve around the things that they attribute value to, just like us. The loss of one sheep in today’s world would be the equivalent of the loss of an entire year of wages. That is important to us. The amount of theft that occurs in the stores around the metro could result in the addition of ten jobs each. That’s important. The pharisees understand that, they are people of intelligence. They understand the loss of a sheep because their lives depend on them. What they do not understand is the value of the person they are judging.
In God’s economy the things that hold value are different than the things that hold value to mankind. Jesus is trying to explain this in a way that those around him will understand. God values every human life because each human being bears the image of God. On the sixth day of creation God said “let use create man in our image, after our likeness. Giving them dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. In God’s economy humanity is the thing of value. God values humanity to such a degree that he risked all of creation for us. There came a time where God nearly wiped us all out, but he resisted and used Noah and his family to reset humanity. He continued to love mankind, so he called one family, Abraham to reveal himself to the world. Humanity continued to reject God’s economy, so he again chose one family to reveal himself through, Israel. Again, and again God used people within the world to shine the light of his revelation to the world. And we as humans continue to turn away. Finally, God decided to come himself, he chose to live among mankind and show us exactly what he values. The message of God has not changed through all human history. From the dawn of human existence God desired only one thing his creation to live in communion with him. His delight was to walk with his groundlings in the garden as they both male and female enjoyed the simple beauty of life.
But we turned. We as humans get distracted and we begin to chase after other things, we lose our innocence and we turn from God. Yet he calls out to us to come back. We run away seeking our own ways, our own desires, our own fulfillment yet God comes after us. He seeks us out and he rejoices when we are found. This is the parable of the lost sheep. A story that has been told and retold countless times throughout history. We turn and God finds us. We turn again and yet again God comes to find us. Again, we turn, we run, we hide and again God comes to find us. We scream out to him why won’t you just leave us alone, and he responds with I love you.
The pharisees do not understand the economy of God, and many of us get distracted as well. We begin to think that God loves us because we are good people. God loves us because we have chosen to follow him. God loves us because we or more likely God loves me because I deserve it. Each of us have run from God. We might be running from God at this very moment, because if we reject those that God loves we reject the very things that God loves.
The sinners and the tax collectors eagerly approached Jesus. It makes me wonder, why? The community around them were filled with religious people and the gospel indicates that some of these supposed sinners were part of the worshiping community, yet they were not accepted. Several of these supposed sinners were people employed by there very people that rejected them. The shepherd was often included among the sinners, even though that lifestyle was the lifestyle of their forefathers and was the life of their beloved King David prior to his assertion to the throne. In the mind of the pharisees many of those very people that served them would be considered sinners, because they did not have the time and money to live the devoted life encouraged by the religious leaders. One could almost assume that according to teachings during this time frame the poor were considered sinners, because they were not blessed with wealth.
But Jesus did not reject the poor, he did not reject the hurting, injured or sick. He did not reject sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes or even the Roman soldiers. Jesus is said to not give preference to anyone but allowed anyone to approach, even women and children. The results of Jesus’s lifestyle changed lives within that community. Tax collectors stopped exploiting, those bound by spirits were freed and became contributing members of society, even those that were exiled due to leprosy when they approached Jesus returned to the community. This happened only because of God’s love for them.
About once a week a meme goes around the internet among my friends. The meme states that a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to get one seems foolish until you are the one. I have been the one. I am not a saint by any stretch of the imagination. I have been that one that Jesus came after. We each might at this moment be safe within the flock, we each might be right where we are supposed to be, this does not mean we are better than anyone because each of us might wonder off at any moment, because we are like sheep. The good thing about that is God does not judge our value the way we judge value, and he left his throne in Heaven to live among mankind to bring each of us wondering sheep home. And for each person that is loved by Christ turns, or more accurately returns to him we should be happy. Because who among us would be willing to potentially lose a years’ wages, how much more valuable are those among us who are loved by the one whose image we bear.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us remember who we truly are and why we are here. Let us remember who we were and who we hope to be. Let us remember how and who influenced us in our lives of faith and let us strive to become people who love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 8, 2019
Luke 14:25–33 (ESV)
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
What does it mean be a follower go Jesus? What exactly is a disciple? I have often considered these things. There are days where I will just sit thinking of these things. I will sit wondering, I will stand around thinking, and I will contemplate as I walk around. Even after being a pastor for sixteen years I still wonder.
At this point in Jesus’s ministry he has traveled throughout Judea and Galilee. He would walk from town to town talking to the people and helping where he could. People liked what they were hearing, they liked what they saw happening. They began to think that Jesus was the very thing they were looking for, but what were they looking for?
There was a lot going on in Israel. Throughout the ages Israel has been the cross-roads of empires. They were always a people called out, different, in the world but not of the world. This concept is extremely odd to think about. If we look at the history of this group, we see something very interesting. Abraham, the patriarch of the nation, was called out. Have we ever really thought about what the calling of Abraham really was? He was called to leave Ur, we do not really think too much about the place he was called from, but Ur was a capital city of one of the first great empires of history. Abraham was called out of the center of the world to an unknown place.
Can you imagine the eminence faith that would take? Ur at that time was the center of the universe. It was the empire; they were the greatest society known at that time. And it was out of the center of the world that Abraham was called to leave. He was called to a place; a place often called the promised land. A place on the edge of everything. The edge of Egypt, the edge of Babylon, the edge of Assyria, the edge of Sumer. Israel was on the edge of empires. Always on the edge but not the center. Often, we do not see Israel as on the edge because in our minds it is central. It is the place, the one place where God called the people he claimed for his own. But it was on the edge. God called Abraham out, he called him to follow him to the place he would lead. And God lead him to the edge.
They were always on the edge. Part of the empire yet not totally, just off to the side. In the world but not of the world. Israel’s culture has reflected this apartness throughout their history. Just outside the mainstream of society. They have been accepted yet rejected largely because they have always been called outside of the empires. And during Jesus’s ministry they continued to live this awkward existence.
No one really likes to be on the edge just outside. They want to be included with everyone else. Yet that was not the life that God called Israel to participate in. Have you ever looked at the laws that were given by God? Many of the laws just do not make worldly sense. For instance, if clothing had mildew it was to be burned. Do you know how many times I forgot to put my laundry in the dryer, and it gets that musty smell? If we had to burn those garments, I would go broke from buying clothes. But the reality of the law is that once mildew sets you do not really get rid of it. It lingers. That same law is found even regarding structures. If there was mildew found in a house, they were required to burn it down. This would keep the construction companies happy but how many of us could afford to burn down our houses because we forgot to turn on the fan while we showered? These laws seem odd, but they are there for a reason. There is even a law that requires you to place railing on the roof so that people would not fall off the roof and hurt themselves. Why would they need that law? They should not be on your roof anyway why would God want us to protect potential criminals? They were even required to welcome the alien and sojourner as if they were members of their extended family.
These laws do not make sense in the world. That is one of the reasons the Jewish people have always been disrespected. We do not understand why they live the way they do. But if we were to look deeper those laws all revolve around a common theme the first is to love and honor God and the second is to be hospitable to those around you. They were always supposed to be on the edge of the empires but showing something different.
Life on the edge of accepted cultural norms is difficult to live. And right away Israel demanded to have a king so they could be more like the rest of the world. They wanted to be like everyone else. They wanted to be part of the world instead of living on the edge. They wanted to have their unique place yet be the empire. Israel, even at its greatest point was never a large nation, yet it did have influence. They were always just on the edge of one empire or another, even today they have influence, yet they are just a tiny nation. I say that not as to disrespect the people because my faith is derived from theirs. We would be nothing without Israel. Because Israel’s existence causes us to reconsider everything.
Jesus ministered to Israel in the first century. They were yet again on the edge of an empire, this time it was the Roman empire. Yet they still wanted their own king. And Jesus was potentially that king. He attracted a great group of people that wanted to listen and even more that desired his healing touch. They wanted to follow, but they really did not know what that meant.
They wanted to be independent, yet they also wanted to be like everyone else. Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem; he had just left the banquet of a ruler of the Pharisees and a crowd is following him. And why wouldn’t there be a crowd he had just healed a man. He turns and he looks at that crowd and he says some outstanding things. They want him to be a king, they want to follow him, but they do not realize what that life would entail.
He says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” How many of us look at that verse and gasp? Well some of us might look at it and say done, I can’t stand my sister or my parents. This is a great example of hyperbole. It’s an exaggeration to make a point. Jesus is not telling us to hate our relatives. He is trying to say that we should honor them, but our love for our family should not be greater than the love that we have for God. Our families can become a sort of religion. Most of us have heard of the ministry, “Focus on the Family,” it is a great ministry that encouraged us to raise our families in faith. But there can be a problem in that ministry. We can focus so much on our families we lose track of God. I stopped listening to Focus on the Family a few years ago, about the time James Dobson left the ministry. I stopped for one reason, I went to our yearly meeting and listened to leaders within our church speak of their families in terms of worship. It was almost as if they made their family into an idol. I love my family. I had wonderful parents. I have a great wife, and two spectacular sons. I could not dream of a better family, but we should not worship our family. Every member of our family should direct us to God. There is a reason Jesus said that people will not marry or be given in marriage in heaven, because family will not be there. We are all children of God and that is it. Our earthly families are here to teach us how to live with God, not be our god.
Jesus says that we must hate our family to be his disciple. Every time I read this passage I am set on edge, and that is the point. Jesus is trying to let people know where their devotion really is. Would you follow even if your family would not?
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This verse is probably one of the most misunderstood verses in scripture, because it is taken out of context. The cross in threat of the empire. It is the destiny of those that oppose the will of the ruling bodies. It is not just a burden to bear; it is an instrument of public execution. To be a disciple of Christ we must be willing to stand with him even if that means opposing the will of a nation. What is Jesus saying?
Jesus goes on speaking about how people would not start to build a tower without having the money to complete it. And that nations would not go against another nation without having the proper strength to be victorious. These verses as well get quoted out of context. What Jesus is saying is that we should start to build the tower even if we do not have the money and that if God leads us into battle we should go even if the odds seem against us. Which means something very profound. We must trust God.
Families, Governments, towers, and armies all represent spheres of influence. Is God in those places? Do I trust God with my family? Do I trust God with my government? Do I trust God in my finances? Do I trust God?
Following God does not always make worldly sense. I mentioned that before. But are we willing to follow anyway? Let us look again at building a tower. In the world we would first have to obtain the capital to build, obtain the land, then we would then have to get the zoning and permit before we could start. Then obtain the materials before we began work. Once all of that was secured, we would build. That is how our world works. There are parts that might look different in some areas but overall this is how we function in our society. What if God told us to build a tower today? What would stop us from answering that call? There are several areas that might cause us to neglect obedience. Maybe it is the money. Maybe we just are not sure we can survive if we invested our resources in that way. That might be true, but do we trust God?
In the Lord’s prayer Jesus encourages us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Have we considered what this prayer is saying? If we are praying God’s will on earth, then we are saying whatever and wherever he leads we will follow. And that is followed with give us our daily bread, meaning that if we are going to follow his lead, we trust he will provide for our needs. A disciple trusts even though they do not understand fully.
A disciple trusts God with their family, they trust them even if that means opposing the government, the trust him with their finances, and they trust him with their security. Each of these aspects are areas we like control. God is telling us that we are not true disciples unless we give that control over to him.
Israel was always on the edge of empires, and they were there to encourage those empires. They were at the crossroads of the empires to remind them that there is something else to consider. Israel is like a geographical Venn diagram of empires, where they all overlap is Israel, always the edge but when we look at the bigger picture right in the middle. This tells us something very important about faith. It might feel like we are on the edge but what’s the bigger picture?
Imagine what it might have felt like to be one of those people opposed to the Nazis when they ruled Germany? What might it have been like to be one of the first groups to support the abolition of slavery in the United States? Most people would think that you were on the edge. You would not quite fit in the mainstream of society. They might not invite you to social events, they may even throw you in jail. But you feel as if you must stand on your convictions. That is a cross to carry.
That is discipleship. Being on the edge of the normative culture reminding them of something different. Reminding them that no matter what we do, or how great we are God is still right there in the center. Are we willing to be the voice on the edge? Are we willing to live by faith even when the world might reject us? Are we willing to be in the world but not of the world? Willing to show our families that to live is Christ. Willing to speak out against our own nation in support of justice? Are we willing to build even if it does not make sense? Are we willing to stand as a nation against another nation in support of global justice even if the might of the other might be greater? Will we stand for God even if our religious leaders won’t? Will we stand or will we walk away?
The cost of discipleship. That is the heading that the compilers of scripture put on this section of scripture. It is also the title of one of the most profound theological books written. It was written by a man who opposed the Nazi government and paid for that opposition with his life. To live our lives following Jesus requires that we often oppose powers within the world as we strive for something greater. It often requires that we sacrifice our own desires to encourage others to deepen their lives of faith. It requires a change of life and lifestyle. A lifestyle where we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others. It is not an easy life, but it is good. Even though it feels often like we are losing everything when we look at the larger picture we are right there where God needs us to be. Giving hope to the hopeless. And that hope is Christ, who came and lived among mankind, died and rose again to give us true fulfilling life with God.
Luke 14:1, 7–14 (ESV)
One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
There is always something cryptic about scripture, something that seems to take us by surprise. Like last week, Jesus heals a woman at the synagogue on the Sabbath. At first glance it might be just one of many miracles Jesus performed, but there was more to it. The synagogue ruler, or minister, was irate. We were told that he was so upset because that woman came to the synagogue on the Sabbath to be healed. Six days you can work come on those days, he yelled. But I posed the idea that maybe the reason he was irate was because Jesus brought a woman into a place where women were not allowed. Jesus challenged their traditions and customs.
Often when we approach scripture we bring our own lives with it. This is not always a bad thing, because scripture is here for God to use. It is hear to direct our minds and our spirits to a place where we can hear the voice of God to us at a moment. At one moment we might be reading the words of Jesus as he spoke on the mount, and in that moment we are worried about the test we are about to take in school, or we are struggling to find a solution to a technical problem at work, maybe we are trying to find a job and have filled out countless applications and not a single place has called us back. We read the verses and the words come alive in our mind. It is as if Jesus was speaking directly to you, and He is. In a moment the weight of the world drops off of our shoulders and we have new life and strength to approach that difficult life situation we are facing. We might even underline the verse, or write a note in the margin of our bible (which is hard to do as we all go digital) and then later we read the passage again and we see the line, and we look at the words again. Those words once gave us life, but now our situation has changed and we do not even know why we would have underlined something so obscure. I know why I underline obscure things, because they are strange and make me laugh. Like the life giving words from Jesus found in Matthew 15, verse 16, “Are you still so dull? Jesus asked them.” I think someone should write a book some time about the 16th verse of every chapter they are often good.
You don’t believe me do you, well last week we read Luke 13:16, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” The reason the synagogue ruler was upset was not about the healing but because of where the healing of that particular person happened. In today’s passage we see Jesus again on a Sabbath day, and this time he is at the home of a synagogue ruler. We began with verse 1 and then skipped over five verses. These verses included the healing of a man on the sabbath, but this instance the ruler was not irate, but silent. It is interesting. One healing drove them mad and the other they were silent. Eventually the healing of individuals did become the topic of ire when it came to the religious leaders and Jesus, but this became the rally because it was one instance where they could claim that Jesus disregarded the Law of Moses. The reason they were upset had nothing to do with the Sabbath but because he challenged their traditions.
This brings us to today’s parable. Jesus is sitting at the table of this respected synagogue ruler, he had just healed a man on the Sabbath and the room is silent. He looks around the room. He sees the people that were invited and he notices where they sitting. He remembered how these individuals were acting as they were beginning to gather. They were pushing their way to the front, trying to attract the attention of their host and positioning themselves in the honored locations. The people present at this gathering remind me of Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet) from the BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances. Trying to do everything they can to make sure the right people notice, to the point they treat their own relatives as strangers.
Jesus then begins to speak, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I want us to really consider this passage for a moment. This happens all too often in society. We all do it. When someone important is in the room, or someone we perceive as important we want to be close. That is why so many people want autographs of celebrities. This is why people buy tickets to sit close to the stage of a concert or a speech. This is why Presidential candidates shake hands with people, and seek endorsements from those within a community they wish to gain favor in. The closer we can get ourselves to those we perceive as important the greater our importance seems to be. And the converse is true as well, right now the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana is running for president and a few years ago a former governor of Alaska ran for vice president, both of which face the question of who do they think they are to seek such a position. I know they had and have to face those questions because I myself ask them.
Jesus is challenging social norms again. Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest Russian authors, once said, “A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he things of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.” In the kingdoms of men or the world, we operate in networks of influence. The more people you know the better chances you have for advancement. There are entire social media formats that attempt to link you to as many people in business so that you can have better networking status. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, I myself have benefited from knowing someone in a position and having that person recommend me to fill a job. I have talked with people on the phone and have written letters to recommend people for positions. This thought process becomes sinful when we only use that influence for advancement. When the reality of who we are and what we can do is less than what we think or try to convince people of.
Jesus is looking at this social circus and I often think he is laughing to himself, because he knows the reality before him. Everyone is running around trying to convince others of their value, but what are they accomplishing? Jesus instead encourages those that are listening to let their lives do the talking.
When Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world he was revealing that what we value in the kingdoms of mankind are not what God values. God sees beyond the appearances we put forth and looks at the core of our being. When we value the things that God values we live our lives differently than the world around us. We give opportunities to those who others might not have considered because we see the potential within them. We invest our time and energy in them, encouraging them to try things they did not think they could. And walking with them through the struggles they might face. Not because they can do anything in particular for us personally but because they are individuals loved by God.
Jesus lived this out in his life. His disciples did not have the social prestige as others within the community. Of all the people mentioned in the Gospels, probably the most qualified person associated with Jesus was his cousin John the baptist. He was the son of a priest, and John was not one of the disciples. He was on the outside of that community looking in. He stood off to the side as Jesus walked and cried out behold the lamb of God. And when Jesus’s ministry began to take disciples from John, he simply said He must increase but I must decrease. The disciples were sons of fishermen, tax collectors, washed out zealots without a following, and sinners. Yet these common people with little social standing carried the ministry of a rural rabbi to the ends of the empire and changed the course of history.
The worldly system though, the systems of mankind are focused on something different. They chase after status and wealth, striving to get ahead and make a name. They strive because as they raise in that social ladder they gain power and influence. And as they gain this power and influence they can begin to use that name to manipulate the world around them to give them even greater power and influence. The kingdoms of men are based on lusts, greed, and envy. With very little regard for the mutual profit of the community as a whole. This leads to exploitation, hatred, and war. And the greater influence one build in the kingdoms of men the greater pressure feel and force they exude to maintain it.
The synagogue ruler last week had a position of power and influence. He gained that position working within a system and to maintain that position nothing could change. His ideas would have to be maintained or he would lose standing within the community. Jesus comes, to teach well that is fine because he has influence and even if he may not agree having an influential figure speak maintains this ruler’s position. But Jesus calls a woman into the sanctuary. Suddenly everything changes. Someone is in a place where they were previously not allowed, if this is allowed to stand how will this ruler and those like him maintain their social standing.
Which leads to the second part of Jesus’s teaching. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
More cryptic words. I mean really. If you do not invite your relatives to your wedding that is your own choice one that I probably would not advise, but I am just a man not God. But there is something in this passage that is striking. Weddings in America are not at all like they were in ancient Israel. Weddings during Jesus’s life were major events that could take a week to fully celebrate. They were not simply the joining of two people together out of love, but they were the union of families. Uniting businesses, lands, influence, and everything else. In America we do not understand this type of concept at least in the middle and lower classes of society. But do you remember the great media attention of the marriage of the Princes of England. How many of us received invitations to those weddings? I am guessing and this is only a guess, but none of us were invited. We were not invited because our status means nothing to them. Nothing we say or do will give the monarchy of England more or less power or influence. But there were many that coveted invitations to that event, because attendance would have changed the course of their lives.
Jesus in this passage is really telling us to reject our families, but instead he is encouraging us to use what we have to improve the lives of those around us. Jesus focused his attention on those that society marginalized. He took time to teach the fishermen. He allowed a woman to sit at his feet while he taught. He ushered the lepers back into the society that once forced them into exile. Jesus gave those without, hope. He gave this hope because all human life is a reflection of God’s image and because it is a reflection of the image of God it has great value. How can we say one person is greater than another if both reflect God’s image in some manner?
Jesus challenges us today to look at where our focus is. Are we keeping up appearances among mankind or are we carriers of hope? Are we fractional facades or an authentic whole? Do we reject others because they threaten our perception of status or do we encourage the best out of all within our community? In so many ways the challenges that Jesus presented to those ancients is very alive today. We still struggle with similar issues but by his grace we have made progress. And as we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends let us join together and pray that His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.