Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Banquet: Swing Wide Open the Doors! (Luke 14)

What comes before a parable really sets the scene for what story Jesus will tell.  

Luke, Chapter 14, starts off with Jesus at the house of a Pharisee. Luke tells us that Jesus is "being carefully watched." The Pharisee clearly wanted to see Jesus up close and personal.  If you invited someone to dine with you in the ancient world, you didn't just share a meal with the person, but you were extending the hand of friendship.  I think the Pharisee may have mixed motives--he is curious about this person from Galilee who has swept the crowds off their feet.  He is also deeply concerned that Jesus is running around blaspheming God every chance He gets--by claiming He is performing miracles, and telling those crowds of His intimate relationship with God. 

Perhaps the invitation was given by one Pharisee and his guest list consisted of many other Pharisees, who who only came to "dine," and all the while they were watching Jesus like hawks.

First up:  a miracle.  A man who is swollen is present.  Jesus asks the guest if it's OK to heal on the Sabbath; they don't say a word.  Out in a bustling crowd, the Pharisees were able to make all kinds of comments about Jesus, perhaps out of earshot of Jesus and the person He was healing.  But here, in this intimate setting, any comments they would make would be heard, so they remain silent. They are not willing to engage in any arguments that they view are beneath them; while they are not desirous to have the crowd behind them, they don't want to lose what little support they have by being overly mean and callous.  

Jesus heals the man, answering His question with action.  Then the meal is about to be served, and all the guests are jockeying for position.  Do they want to be close to Jesus, to lean in and ask Him questions that they are eager to ask, but cannot do so in front of their peers?  Do they want to sit next to this "prominent Pharisee" (Luke's word) and score some holiness brownie points in his company?  

Whatever is happening, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach the people that humility is always the right move, because if you grab a seat that you are not to sit in, and you have to be asked to move by the host, you will be humiliated.  Then He says, "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

That is Kingdom of God code for if you see the needs of others and step aside, God will see this and will invite you to sit with Him--for He is the ultimate Host.  

Then, He turns to the host of the meal, and admonishes him to not to invite just his social circle, for he will be asked in kind, and so on, back and forth.  That circle will be closed to anyone outside it. Instead, Jesus tells him to go out and invite those who cannot repay him: the blind, the lame, the weak and the poor.  His reward will be when the graves open, the trumpet will sound and those who loved others will rise, clothed in righteousness. 

"When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, 'Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.'"

Hold on.  It's as if this guest was giving a hardy "Amen," to score some points with the guests and Jesus.  This person is saying

Of course, the righteous will resurrect and I (just sayin') will be among those who will rise!  Allelujah!

Hmm.  I wonder if Jesus' parable might have been a bit different if this person hadn't so boldly and egotistically (just sayin') proclaimed that he or she was going to, no doubt, be there. Let's keep going. 

"Jesus replied: 'A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, "Come, for everything is now ready."

'But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, "I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me."

'Another said, "I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me." 

'Still another said, "I just got married, so I can’t come."

'The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

'"Sir," the servant said, "what you ordered has been done, but there is still room."

'Then the master told his servant, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."

Wow. Here is Jesus, at a banquet, having already let the host know that a true banquet, in terms of the Kingdom of God, has all sorts people involved, not just friends and family of the host.  On other words, the banquet should be an expression of love for the whole human family--not just the "decent" folks.  I think Jesus may be trying to clarify just who the "righteous" will be at the end of the age resurrection.  

The man in the parable invites many guests. The guest list is drawn up consisting of those closest to the host's family--the inner circle in the community.  The guests equally saw themselves as part of the inner circle, who probably expected an invitation because of who they were. 

But they didn't value the invitation--they had a I'm-too-busy-with-other pressing-matters response. 

Let's listen in: 

Yes, I know.  I heard about the banquet.  It was only last month I went his house--beautiful but a bit gaudy.  Anyway, I just landed a deal on a bit of real estate I have been looking at for a long time. It finally hit the market and I snatched it up.  I am going to go and see it and of course, it's the same day as the banquet.  You've been to one banquet, you've been to them all.  Just tell him I can't make it, because that is the truth!  Do I want to make it?  Hmmm. Nah.  

Man, just check out these oxen.  Finest anywhere.  I am going to plow faster and more efficiently than my neighbors, and next harvest time, I will be sitting pretty.  Barns full of grain and money jingling in my pocket.  That's my future and I like it.  A banquet? Oh, no.  Not today of all days.  I want to make sure I got a good return on my investment.  Just tell him I can't make it--I make it some other time. (Not really!  I will be too rich to be going to a banquet!  I'll be the one throwing 'em and I will be the talk of the town!)   

Really?  A banquet today?  He has so much time to throw one, and now, of all days, he picks the day after my wedding day.  Really?  Didn't he know about my wedding?  Is he being so inconsiderate as to steal my thunder so he can have his banquet?  He can have one any day, but it's not every day I get  married!  Thanks but no thanks. 

Now, the host in the parable decides that if his banquet doesn't merit a joyful and gratitude-filled response of, "Yes, honored host, we will be there!" and the guests make excuses because they are too mired in their world, and not enough in his, then the host will expand the guest list to include, yes, you guessed it, the ones who will never make anyone's guest list!  "Those people"--the kind that no self-respecting Pharisee would ever even consider having over for a nosh.  

In other words, the humble who will sit in the lowliest of seats, who would never presume to come to a banquet (the man healed by Jesus didn't stay to dine) and who are out and about in a cruel, uncaring world. Yet, even after those people are ushered into the banquet hall, there is still room!

The host commands that the servant go beyond the city walls, into the highways and byways, and invite those who wouldn't even consider being asked to come to this host's banquet--who may not even heard of him until the invitation is given.   

In other words, you and I.  We were not the Chosen Ones; we were grafted onto the olive tree (Romans 11) and we are the beneficiaries of the Jewish faith--we didn't even know there was a banquet to go to until the Host, the Son of God, invited us.  

I am truly sorry for those, who, for whatever reason, have not responded to the invitation.  But there is always time.

For now. 

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Sinned Much, Forgiven Much: Luke 7:36-50

This is a rather short parable. It distills Jesus' actions towards an outcast in His society, and reminds us that "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:7, NIV)

Let's set the scene:

"When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them."

Whoa.  A Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner.  Hmmm.  Is this genuine? 

Hey Jesus!  You are always surrounded by such crowds that I really want to talk with You, one on one, in a small intimate setting. Come have supper with me.  To dine with someone, as You know Jesus, is not just eating together, but a demonstration of true friendship.  I do want to be your friend.

Or, is it...

I want to get this Jesus away from the crowds, so I can see what makes Him tick. So much is said about Him.  I want to see for myself.  I am extending the invitation of friendship, but I am not sure I really want Him as my friend.  I am confused about Him, for my fellow Pharisees excoriate Him on a regular basis.  Who is He, really?

Whatever the motivation, Jesus accepts the invitation and reclines at table with this Pharisee.  Were the disciples there?  They are not mentioned either, but that doesn't preclude them from being there.  Jesus was invited, and was it assumed that the disciples would come along?   

But, suddenly, there is an uninvited guest.  She found out that Jesus is in town (gossip amongst the townspeople?) and she makes her way there.  What is she thinking?

I know who I am.  I am sure the Master does as well.  Leave it to Simon to tell Him about me as soon as I show up.  I know.  I am unclean, and entering the dwelling of a righteous man (two strikes against me right there--righteous and a man) and walking in.  I have heard of the Master--His kindness, His willingness to forgive, and His gentle touch on those who need it most.  I don't care what anyone says.  I am going in.  Let Simon be surprised. I don't care.  I wonder: What will the Master say to me?

I find it interesting no one bars her from coming in.  But because she came in from behind Jesus, beyond the oil lamps' light, was she not noticed in the shadows?  Being in the shadows sums up this poor woman's life.   

Oh, there He is.  His presence is so sweet, and He doesn't turn around angrily, even though Simon is shocked beyond words.  I need to do what I came to do before Simon demands I leave.  Yes, I know how I earned the money to buy such expensive perfume. But its sweet aroma dances with Jesus' sweet aroma.  I cannot help but cry. I am so unworthy to even face this precious Man.  I will anoint His feet as I stand behind Him. Oh, I cannot help but cry.

Simon is mortified.  Did he offer, as a good host, to wash Jesus' feet, or was he so excited to have Jesus in his house (where he could pummel Him with questions) that he forgot to play the host? Did he have a rather hurried greeting and just wanted to get down to business by questioning Jesus?  

But this woman, this outcast, anoints His feet with this fragrant perfume, acting out of utter love for Jesus. 

I have no towel, no way to wipe His feet.  I try to wipe the tears from my eyes, but they just come.  I know, I know:  I will use my hair, to wipe His feet.  I know, I know, this not how it is done.  But nothing today is how it's done in my world. 

Let continue with the Biblical narrative:  

"When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.'

Jesus answered him, 'Simon, I have something to tell you.'

'Tell me, teacher,' he said.

'Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?'

Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.'

'You have judged correctly,' Jesus said."

Jesus went to the heart of the matter:  One heart was hardened with self-righteousness, and one heart was hardened with self-loathing.  So, Jesus uses this story to illustrate that those whose debts (sins) are, by their estimation, rather small, may not rejoice at the forgiveness offered to them.  Those whose debts (sins) are enormous, will never forget how it felt when they were released from such a heavy burden.

Neither person had the resources to pay the debt back; the moneylender was under no obligation to release them from their debts; he did so out of love and compassion, and wanted to see them be free.   

Jesus uses the word, "judge" and I find a double meaning in that:  A pharisee was called on all the time to make judgments and ruling, and he has, in this instance, judged correctly, in his world. 

But is Jesus intimating that he has judged correctly in a new realm, the Kingdom of God, which Jesus has not stopped proclaiming since the start of His ministry?  In other words, Simon has seen how much more liberating it is to have so much forgiven.

Then, to drive the point home, Jesus turns towards the woman, (she is behind Him) and then inquires of Simon: 

"'Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.'

Then Jesus said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven.'

The other guests began to say among themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?'

Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'"

Can you imagine how this woman felt, as she headed home?  Did she run, skipping and laughing all the way and not caring one iota about those staring at her?  Jesus released her from her enormous debt, and gently bids her adieu.  She now leaves as a child of the Kingdom of God.

Simon?  Well, his guests have their knickers in a twist.  What did he do?  

We don't know, but when he laid his head down that night, I am sure that he felt the weight of his sin as he had never done so before:  being in God's presence has a way of reminding us of how short we have fallen.  Yet, also being in God's presence urges us to lay that sin down and to rise up free and forgiven.

I would like to think Simon was one of those people who got it. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

Christmas and Its Secular Cousin: Easter

Let's be honest here.  Christmas is now a holiday in a parallel universe.  You can have a tree, pretty ornaments and lights, colorful decorations, beautifully crafted outdoor displays and indoor decorating and lots and lots of shopping for the "perfect gift."

There you have it:  Christmas without Christ.

The universe this "holiday" (as described above) occupies is one of enjoying all the trimmings, without any of its deeper meaning. It's been rebranded as a time of gathering together families and friends; eating and drinking merrily and then going home with an armload of gifts.

Many people will be standing in a line at Walmart soon after, seeking a refund for a gift that they really didn't want, but made a big deal over it to Grandma days before.  Why keep a gift from someone when it's all about what you want?  The after Christmas sales will lure buyers with even better deals than all the pre-Christmas sales did.  

There you have it:  Christmas without Christ.

People drive by a church's nativity, with lighted plastic figures in it, maybe noticing it, maybe not.  The real destination is those neighborhoods alight with Disneyland-like decorations that wow and amaze the cars' passengers.  

Then comes Easter a scant few months later.  Now Easter has joined it holiday cousin in the parallel universe of secularized holidays.  Eggs, bunnies, chicks, wreaths, ham dinners, gift baskets and  gathering together (without the guilt-tripping that Christmas brings if you can't make it).  

There you have it: Easter without Christ.

The message of Christmas, Immanuel's ("God with us") invasion into a sin-steeped planet, and Easter, where Immanuel took on that very planet's sins, bore them, shed His blood over them, and gave freedom to those who ask Him, is the core of Easter. 

But that message is lost to the ruler of this world's endless effort to drive Christianity to the margins of Western culture.

Once something is marginalized, it is far easier to eliminate it.  That is what I am seeing today. 

Society tolerated, for a long time, both aspects of the holiday to coexist:  You could have the tree and gifts, but you could also go to church and sing carols about the Messiah and the Three Wise Men. 

This was the Christmas of my childhood.  We had the tree, gifts, but there was something deeper, something more meaningful, that gently lingered in the air throughout the festivities.  I didn't grow up in a Christian family, but the Christian aroma of the US in the 50's and early 60's permeated the holiday and gave it a sweetness not seen in the guilt-tripping and greedy holiday of today.

Even when I was young, Easter was harder to celebrate, given the enormity of the crucifixion, even in a nation that still saw Christianity in a positive light. My friends all got Easter baskets, filled with candy and toys.  My parents did not participate in that; they obviously saw that such things somehow collided with Easter's true message. 

Now, Easter is lost, right along with Christmas.  I use Walmart as a gauge as to the secularization descent; every year, less and less Christian-themed items are featured in their multiple aisles of Easter stuff.  The other day, I didn't see really anything.  I live in Idaho, which is not an exactly a hotbed of progressive thought; but alas, money must be made, and all of the secular frou-frou is far more profitable than crosses and "He is Risen" plaques. 

Easter is ugly compared to Christmas.  Everyone loves a baby and what is more endearing than a mother holding her little son?  There's that manger with its cute animals, adoring parents, wee baby and  those great men who show up in lovely robes, bearing gifts. 

But Easter is ugly: It has crowds shouting, "Crucify him!" and the beating, tortures and mockery of a Man who just stands there, knowing this is why He came.  He talks to the Roman governor, who at least has a modicum of curiosity.  He is silent before a corrupted king, who mocks Him. 

Neither man saw Immanuel: He was lost in their politics, their hatred and their blindness to the workings of God.  The ruler of this world was in hysterics, and Holy Week was going to end just the way he wanted it to:  with death, destruction and defeat.  

The cross made the ruler of this world rejoice, for the Light of the World had been extinguished.  This ruler had triumphed in the Garden of Eden and he was going to triumph again. 

But he was wrong. Dead wrong. 

The Light of the World prevailed!  Easter is glorious, as we push away the eggs, bunnies and all the things that obscure and demean it.  The cross, the shroud and the empty tomb declare, "Immanuel!"

We cry in response, "Death:  Where is your sting?"  

The grave is not final; there is life and that abundantly, to be found in Immanuel--for truly, by asking Him into our hearts, God is with us.  

Let this video draw you into Easter and its message of redemption and hope that is in Him, and because of Him:

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