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Luke 14:1, 7-14

Luke 14:1, 7-14 “What Would God Do?”

Some years ago I worked with a person who also planned his location. When we would go to meetings or to meals together, he would always plan where he parked. Upon finding the “perfect” spot he would insist on backing in. When we went in to sit down for the meeting or a meal, he would strategically locate himself at the best location in the room. His priorities were the best location to see and communicate with everyone in the room. Second, he would always sit where he could face the whole room. I asked him once why he did this. His answer was “I don’t ever want to be surprised by anyone at any time.”

The interaction with my colleague all those years ago remind me of the gospel lesson for this Sunday. After watching my colleague and friend maneuver through every social interaction this way I began to realize he was hopelessly burdened with the need for acceptance and social acceptance. His life was always burdened with how he was being treated by those in our social circle. After each of those social encounters he would recount the meeting in terms of how he was treated. Usually the conversation related to his perceptions of how he was treated. We rarely discussed the substance of the meeting or the focus of the meal conversation.

In Luke 14 Jesus has been invited to a meal by one of the Pharisees. At this meal he is being watched. His actions are being evaluated for their faithfulness to a social code, where the social elites are being reaffirmed in their significance. It’s difficult to imagine why Jesus has been invited to a meal like this. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine why Jesus has accepted the invitation. Complicating the whole event, Jesus heals a man with dropsy. This is how it is when Jesus is invited to a meal. All the wrong people show up, and their presence turns the social structure on its head.

At the conclusion of vv. 1-6 we find a confident Jesus who has stifled the religious elite by the following: (1) the silence of the table companions in the face of Jesus’ argument for healing the man with dropsy, (2) Jesus is an authoritative teacher who can decide what actually constitutes Sabbath observance, and (3) the door is now open to what the teacher will soon reveal.[1]

So, now, Jesus shares a parable. Jesus has had enough of the religious elite, and their social relations. He intends to subvert them, because the kingdom of God looks nothing like their social, economic, and religious priorities. He seems to be mocking them by telling this parable. In fact he is mocking their social conventions of seeking places of honor and of presuming they should be awarded these places of honor. This is the typical expectation we have come to accept from the Pharisees, but it is shocking to anyone who wishes to follow Jesus.

The social norms of the day would have been couched in the larger honor-shame culture of the day. To take a seat of honor is a calculated risk. The seat of honor must be reciprocated by the hosts, and if it is not this can lead to public shame. He knows their game, and it is always to find a more prestigious place of distinction then one has previously. Today, it is called “climbing the ladder.” The Pharisees and other religious leaders are seeking significance by closing the circle of status and importance. They would to drive out any rivals by ensuring they are the only recipients of honor.

Jesus’ teachings have “called into question the self-seeking agenda of his table companions, insisting that honor must be given, not pursued or taken.”[2] People who seek the highest position will be brought down. They will be judged, according to Jesus, by a different agenda then the one which places them in positions of prestige.

We are troubled by this, because we live virtually all of our lives by another code. We want our kids to play on the best soccer teams, coached by the best coaches. We complain if our kid doesn’t start the match, and we often are in the position of advocating for more playing time for our children. We might be one of those who is always judging our work performance by an obsession of getting more information than anyone else. Doing so provides us with an edge over everyone else. Having the goods on others puts us in the position of dictating terms for our ascendance to professional elitism.

Still, the parable points us to the priorities God has. God is not interested in actions which puff up. God is interested in breaking the social norms which create bondage for the dispossessed. False humility and self-seeking agendas form a dangerous and sinful reality. The Pharisees have abused the notion of hospitality in order to seek self-advancement. They have used the social reality of reciprocity to dominate the culture around them. The parable tells the truth about their tendencies and the tendencies of anyone who gains significance on the backs of others without status and wealth.

Jesus moves to negate the tendencies of the Pharisees to exclude people.[3] By excluding people and creating a world where the only ones you interact with are the ones who benefit you the presence of God’s kingdom will not be yours. Rather, the policy of exclusion is a policy contrary to Christ. Instead of exclusion Jesus is calling for an invitation to those who cannot benefit your climb in status. The invitation to the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is a call to surround yourself with people who offer you no social advantage whatsoever.

Jesus, then, is demanding we put an end to practices of exclusion. Giving ourselves to the needs of others means we will stop focusing on our self-promotion. Our lives will become rightly connected to the kingdom priorities of inclusion and embrace of our neighbor. As much as we hate to acknowledge it, we are torn between two worlds. The first world is one determined by self-advancement and the exclusion of anyone who does not benefit us. The second is determined by the Lord of heaven and earth. In the second we are called to see ourselves as we really are: we are in deep need of grace. All of us are in need of God’s grace.

I may not search for the perfect parking space, and back in to it. I may not pick my seat at a meeting or banquet based upon its proximity to the “important people” at the meeting. I may not do any of these things, but I am still liable to put myself above others. The parable and promise Jesus offers us here is one of social and relational transformation. The blessing of God’s kingdom is found in caring for the marginalized and forgotten. In doing so our lives are blessed and we are fulfilling the desires of our Lord.

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke, NICNT. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997 548.

[2] Ibid, 552.

[3] Ibid, 553.