Aug 16, 2006

Sermon Title: "Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?"

Nicholas R. Hopman
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place, August 2006 Round

“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Luther said that however you believe God to be so you have him. So, “is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Answer, “no” and you have a wrathful God; answer, “yes” and you have a merciful God. Jesus Christ is always stalking and hunting down faith. He cuts away and burns all disbelief and exalts all faith. So of course he cuts right to the heart of the matter and asks the only question worth asking, “is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?”

If we were merely observers tallying the posited bits of data that the history of Jewish religion up to Christ’s time has left for us to observe, I could give a nuanced explanation of the various answers to the question. I could conclude that it’s been a disputed question and then wax poetic about the beauty of truly noble questions, or the academic glory of an unresolved answer. I could claim that the world is a more interesting place with various answers to this question. We could even delve into scripture itself and say the question is undecided, as many scriptures seem to argue that necessity knows no law and would tend toward allowing healing. However, God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth himself, rested on the Sabbath. And if you’re going to take someone as an example, God is a good place to start.

And anyway, what’s the rush? Jesus could observe the Sabbath in an absolute manner and then heal the man with dropsy on Saturday night or Tuesday afternoon. Why does Jesus always cause so much trouble? If he had just used a little diplomacy he could have avoided controversy about the Sabbath and healed the man. As Christians we’re supposed to somehow feel bad about Jesus getting crucified, but we can at least see why it happened. He had it coming. If we imagined that he had messed around with the basic laws and customs of our society we might even be able to look at the cross and say “good riddance.” Why would he mess around with something as harmless as the Sabbath? Jesus shouldn’t have played so fast and loose with the law. You know that liberal understandings of the law can only cause trouble in the world. On day a woman is found not guilty by reason of insanity of systematically drowning her children and the next day some kook-shrink might allow her back on the street. After all, the world needs a little law and order. One day rockets are hitting Haifa, the next they might be hitting Chicago without the law’s crushing retaliation for lawlessness.

But we are not observers observing this interesting question or casting judgment on Jesus Christ. There’s no voting or democracy here. Western civilization and all the King’s tanks can’t help us out with this question. You and I are the one’s with dropsy. We are deathly and eternally ill with sin. You’re eternal fate and mine are bound up with the answer to this question. And Jesus Christ is no interesting character or troublemaker to be observed and later to become the provocative subject of unusually interesting conversation. He is the Lord. He is the living word of God who created the heavens and the earth on the first six days before there ever was a Sabbath. He created you. Before you were, he was. He was a guest at the Pharisee’s house when he asked the question about healing on the Sabbath, but he was running the show. He had the authority to ask the question with power. He rained this question down on his host. And so even when he comes to us today in his living word and living sacraments, it is he who is there to judge us. Christ came from heaven above to save us and whenever he speaks he speaks from above. So enough contemplating the question and judging Jesus Christ. Now it’s time for him to judge.

“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” You and I will be eternally dead or alive depending on the answer to this question. But if you think you can turn the tables on Christ one last time and answer the question, then you merely prove yourself to be a sinner and you are sorely mistaken. Jesus asks the question. Hearing the Pharisee’s unfaith and our unfaith through their silence, he does what a Lord and Savior does: he answers the question; he decides the case himself. Enough disputing about legalities, Jesus Christ does the deed. It’s not enough that God is love; Christ makes love for his beloved sick creature. When you read this story you can almost see the fiery anger at law-lovers and sickness and death in his eyes and the fiery love in his eyes as he grabs the man with dropsy, heals him, and throws him back into the creation to live the life God has freely given him. Christ hate’s sin and chastises us. He points out that we will gladly ignore the law to help our own child or our own interests. But at the same time he ignores the law to heal one of us, one of his betrayers and enemies. That’s your Christ. That’s your God. God is merciful. “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath?” Yes. God might have rested on the Sabbath when he made the old creation, but now the Son is making a new creation and there is no time for him to rest. He is God’s final word to us. Where Jesus Christ is the end has already come, “Everything old has passed away, behold, everything has become new. (2 Cor. 5)” There’s no time to wait for the day after the Sabbath for healing or believing. Jesus and his words make faith and faith possesses a merciful God.

You can make fun of us Lutherans all you want. You can say we’re weak on good works, or we don’t have fire for the Lord, but praise be to God for Lutherans, because everything in scripture and on this earth is a matter of law and gospel. And the great master who taught the distinction of law and gospel to Martin Luther, was not Augustine or even Paul the apostle, it was Jesus Christ. Here Christ as always is distinguishing law and gospel.

Our English Bible obscures this fact because it has Jesus asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus never spoke English until he ascended into heaven and sent preachers to the Anglo-Saxons. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The oldest New Testament texts we have are in Greek. The Greek word in the quote from Jesus which our bible translates as “lawful” is “eksestin” from the preposition “eks” “out of” or “from” and “estin” meaning “it is.” This word literally means, “out of what is.” In other words is it possible to heal on the Sabbath? The connotation of the word can be “permitted” or “lawful.” However, it can also be “proper.” “Is it proper to heal on the Sabbath?” “Is it possible?” Jesus is not playing the lawyers’ and Pharisee’s games. He is not parsing the limits of the law. We know that when lawyers start playing games with the law the result is pain and destruction. Jesus Christ has not come to cause death and destruction. He has come give life and heal. He is not playing games with the law; he is distinguishing law and gospel.

Finally, no study of Greek words can determine what Christ is aiming at, as he did not speak Greek. Finally, we have to look at his story as a whole and see what he’s doing. He has not come to idolize the law like the lawyers and Pharisees. He has come to end the condemnation of the law and give the gospel, the good news of life. So is it possible to heal on the Sabbath? Is it proper to heal on the Sabbath? Is God merciful? Yes, where Jesus Christ and his words are, God is merciful. Is it possible for God to act and speak from beyond the law? Yes, Christ came to fulfill and suffer the law and create the gospel. The gospel says Christ has suffered the condemnation of the law. No doubt healing on the Sabbath in front of lawyers and Pharisee’s was one act on they way towards the cross. Lawyers cannot tolerate actions that disregard the law. We cannot tolerate a troublemaker who refuses to obey our rules. So we crucified him. But his Father acted beyond the law and the death it always brings and he raised Christ from the dead. So now law and gospel have been distinguished eternally, once and for all. Now the resurrected Christ heals us and gives us his promises from beyond the reality of law and death. There is a new creation, a new reality where there is only healing and no need for lawyers, except to the extent that they themselves are healed.

We see Jesus Christ preaching strange doctrines and creating a strange relationship with the law when he later says, Luke 14:12-14 "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Moses said, “Honor your Father and your Mother.” Christ says, “don’t invite you Mother or Father when you have a party or get married, instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

We of course know the reality only of the law and we try to interpret Jesus’ statements according to the law. So we wonder about how Jesus is debating Moses. We consider his statement like a new precedent setting decision of the Supreme Court. Perhaps Moses is the conservative old Zionist who believes in family values, while Christ is the new liberal who believes in “social justice.” But this analysis comes up short of reality. Some of you Republicans might not believe this, but Democrats and liberals alike know that the primary social insurance system is the family. Debates about how big social welfare programs should be are debates about what our society should do when families fail to care for their members, and perhaps some of you Republicans would remind me that they are also debates about whether or not such programs can inadvertently damage families. But everyone, liberal and conservative alike, knows that primary family relationships have the greatest effect on a child’s health and prosperity from birth to old age. I know not a single liberal Democrat who hopes that his daughter does not invite him to her wedding banquet or believes that the values he has instilled in her will cause her to neglect him. Conversely it might shock some of you Democrats to know that there are Republicans who believe in caring for the sick and the poor. Some of them even give money and do many other things to help the poor, crippled, lame and blind. Perhaps there has even been a Republican who has invited a member of one of these groups to a banquet.

So when Christ preached mercy to the poor he is not taking up one view of the law in favor of a certain political agenda. Perhaps we could look at this scripture and claim that Jesus was a liberal and that once and for all we have proof that we in mainstream Protestantism are correct and the evil conservative Evangelicals have Jesus all wrong. We could claim that if Christ had only said, “invite the poor and the lame.” It would have been a good and true teaching had Christ only said, “invite the poor and lame.” The Psalms exalt those who feed the poor. Psalm 112:9 “9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.” Not only is it good for the poor when you give to them, but it is good for the rich: Proverbs 25:16 “16 If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, or else, having too much, you will vomit it.” Gluttony and too many riches are bad for you. Give them to the poor. You should give to the poor and free yourself from excess. Even if we were not talking about harmless poor and lame people, even if we were talking about our enemies, we should give to them: Proverbs 25:21 “21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”

But Jesus did not stop at saying invite the poor or even invite your enemies; instead he also said, “don’t invite your friends and relatives.” With those words he condemns us. Liberal, conservative, he condemns us all. This is a strange kind of ethics that Christ is preaching. No doubt the world would be a better place if more of us invited the poor and lame to our parties. But the world would fall apart if we neglected our relatives and friends. The fourth commandment, “Honor your Father and your Mother,” is the only command with a promise. It promises that our life will be long in the land if we keep this commandment. Our societies in these old lands are held together by family and friendly relationships. So when Christ commands us not to invite our families and friends he is not giving advice that would make the world a better place.

But that’s the whole point. Christ is not Moses. He is not aiming at a better society in this old age. He does not say “don’t invite your mother, invite a beggar, and things will be better on earth.” Christ is in the old creation, but he’s speaking right past it. He’s speaking right past the law and ethics and aiming at heaven, a new creation. So he says not to invite your mother. Why? Because she might reward you for being a good daughter and invite you back. And when you get rewarded on earth you loose your reward in heaven. He says invite the beggar. Why? Because the beggar does not take part in evil corporate society and is therefore more noble than the rich? No. Because the poor lead especially upright lives in accordance with the highest morality, family values, and doing like Jesus would do, and in doing so are unable to become rich? No. Invite the poor because they are unable to repay you and you will be rewarded on the day of the resurrection.

This is a strange type of ethics that Christ is teaching. It sounds selfish. The goal of doing what Christ commands is that it will benefit you, rather than the poor or society. He certainly is not teaching ethics as we understand ethics. He’s not just teaching a new selfish kind of ethics; he’s not just teaching one more system of values. He’s not teaching the superiority of the eternal or heaven and the inferiority of a temporal reward. No doubt we can only hear his teaching this way, as if he were merely teaching a new law and heaven was merely an extension of this world’s values. When Christ asks “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” we can only think about parsing the law and making a sober legal judgment. But we think this way because we are his betrayers. We are the ones who crucified him for acting beyond the law, for healing on the Sabbath and for forgiving sin.

When Jesus Christ talks about being rewarded in heaven he is describing a whole new creation that has nothing to do with our always-sinful ways of thinking about ethics and economics. He is teaching a whole new way of being and doing. Christ is teaching about the way things work in heaven. Heaven has already broken into the old creation where Christ is. The resurrection has already occurred in faith and hope alone where there is faith in Christ. Faith already has everything, so it glories in giving away gifts that cannot be repaid. Faith glories in love. Faith does not work according to the world’s understanding. It does not believe in quid pro quo. Faith believes in Jesus Christ himself. So faith and its fruits will only be repaid on the day of the resurrection. But this will be a strange kind of repayment. Faith knows that works do not merit heaven, only Christ does. Faith is in Christ alone. It is made by the Holy Spirit through the word. So faith has no merit of its own. It is rejecting one’s own merit for Christ alone. The fruit of faith is simply helping others without any thought of reward. So faith and its fruits will be rewarded and repaid on the day of the resurrection, but this is a new and strange type of repayment.

This is how ethics work in heaven; this is how Christ deals with us, how he makes faith. He takes all the merit we have to offer him, namely sin and death and repays us by giving us his own righteousness and life. In this heavenly ethic the poor don’t mind that their benefit is not the teleological purpose for helping them. What matters is being given a gift or not being given a gift. What matters is being invited to dinner or being uninvited. In this heavenly system, the poor get invited. Here Christ is describing heaven itself. In heaven Christ invites poor sinners to live with him eternally. Somehow this is what Christ wants and he is somehow rewarded in raising the dead. But if this is the reward that Christ is after, if I get to live with him in an eternal Sabbath, then I can say “Amen.” Then I can applaud this divine selfishness and jealousy. I can applaud Jesus Christ wanting all of me all to himself forever. I can even say “Amen,” when I see him jealously stripping away all that keeps me away from him. I can even say “Amen” when he puts me in the grave, because I trust and hope that he is doing it to raise me from the dead and give me a brand new body that will never get sick or die again. This is the justice Christ wants for you and me.

This strange heavenly ethic is also what Christ is aiming at when he commands us to take the lowest seat at wedding banquet. He’s not just repeating Proverbs 25, which already told us to take the lowest seat. We know that in this world humility and bragging can both be self-serving. We all have seen false humility, namely in ourselves. But Christ is talking about the true humility of faith. He is always aiming at faith and the day of the resurrection and doing just that when he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Christ is always preaching about the last day. Where he is the kingdom of heaven has already arrived. So there’s no time to wait until after the Sabbath to heal. Christ already has begun the eternal Sabbath, when God gives all gifts for free and we do nothing.

When Christ speaks he fulfills his words. He took the lowest seat. The Son of God became the lowest of men. He came as a humble servant and served even to the point of death on a cross. He was not sacrificed in the Holy of Holies, but outside the city (Heb. 13: 12).

But we also see that his humility has a limit. When it comes to having mercy, Christ has no humility. For mercy Christ stands up and fights. And so right in front of the lawyers and the Pharisees, the defenders of the Sabbath, he heals the man with dropsy. When it comes to healing and forgiving sin, Christ wants center stage so that he can reveal God’s mercy and so everyone can hear him do it. Christ did not even humbly obey the rules of death. Instead he sprang back to life in order that his words of mercy might go forth to many more.

And so now, having destroyed death and sin, having crushed the dropsy that oppresses us all, Christ comes to fulfill his teaching about inviting only those who cannot pay back the invitation. The wicked are upset that God gives away eternal life for free to the poor (Psalm112:9). Psalm 112:10 10 The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. But Christ came specifically to do this, 1 Timothy 1:15 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- Matthew 9:12 "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

So Christ does not invite those who have their own righteousness according to the law, but only sinners who have no righteousness to pay him back with. You are sinners. Christ forgives you all your sin. Where there is the forgiveness of sin there is life. On the last day you shall rise and live. You will rise into an eternal Sabbath. It will be a healing even more spectacular than that Sabbath day when he healed the man with dropsy.

Sermon Title: “You Are Dead . . . How Humiliating.”

Steven Broers
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Second Place, August 2006 Round

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I’ve got some bad news for you. You cannot humble yourself any longer. You are dead. You had your chance and now you’re dead. You cannot humble yourself . . . I know, how humiliating, right? Your dreams of glory are over. Sorry. But, humility is not a prize to be won. It’s not a trophy to show off in front of others less pious than you. It’s awful! It’s death. And yes, you are dead, humbled to your very core!

Prayers for patience usually end with a prayer to God that he would just hurry up with it! Prayers for humility are done with great pride. “Oh dear God, please grant me a little humility so that I might be exalted, glamorized, and glorified in your eyes!” “Tough luck old man. You get to stay right where you are—in your grave until I come,” Christ says. You are dead. And now that you have heard it you are finally humbled.

This is how God works. He work is hidden. Disguised. Concealed. Hidden from your eyes. Disguised within humility. Concealed by the law to be revealed in Jesus Christ. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Lord kills and makes alive. He brings down to the grave and he raises up again. He hides and he finds. He humbles and he exalts. He conceals and he reveals. But take note of your role in all of this. Pay attention to what you need to do: Nothing. God is the actor and you are not. He hides himself from your eyes and he finds you in deepest darkness. You are dead. You are humbled. God is at work and you are not.

But that’s how God likes you—smiling in your sepulcher. It’s embarrassing, yes, for you don’t even know you’re dead for goodness sake! Another humiliation. Another death. And yet, this God, who loves you, has developed a funny taste for sinners like you. He invites the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind and feeds them with his very own body and blood. Giving all of himself, withholding nothing, so that he might be all in all for you. Even when you are all too ingloriously dead.

I want that poor girl, he says with glee, with the Lexus and the penthouse mansion! I have stockpiled treasure for her and she will want for nothing more. I want that crippled one with the great health and such pride! He’ll walk with me so he can finally rest. Where are the lame? Let me carry them in my arms. That way they can’t run away from me again. Where is that blind man with the two good eyes? He can’t see his wife; he’s always looking at himself. You shall be my houseguest. You shall live with me. You shall be my people. You will feast on me. You are my chosen one. You are blind and lame. You are deaf and crippled and don’t even know my name. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

You’ve heard the bad news, now hear the good news! Humility is not your job. It is not your work and it is not your act. It’s the humility that you didn’t want to have happen in the first place. You tried to do your best and found out that you had killed God’s only Son. How humbling! How humiliating! It doesn’t feel good at all. But the good news is that even though you are dead, look again! You are alive! Your life is hidden with Christ in God.

I know that you have come today to sit with the sinners. To humble yourself before the almighty. To deny yourself a few more hours of blissful sleep. To hear about the law. To be motivated. To hear of tolerance and godliness. To find out what you can do. To die another day. But, today, this is God’s word for you: “Come up here dear sinner! Sit in my heavenly places! Sit with my saints for I have chosen you! I have made you humble and I will exalt you.”

Does that sound like good news to you? Isn’t there anything left for you to do? God’s word says that you are to humble yourself, right? That’s the law, clear and simple. Are you still waiting for the next shoe to drop? Are you still looking for a loophole? What about that verse from Psalm 112, “Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.”? Are you weighing the possibilities that maybe you could still learn to like the law?

In other words, are you supposed to like being humble? Feel bad and like it or pretend that humility feels exultingly good? Do you want to delight in your sufferings? Is that it? Be a big Christian and don’t cry? Well, before you accept this as your lot in life, listen to that great theologian Mac Davis and a very insightful song he wrote. In this song, I think you can begin to hear God’s word another way . . . and maybe even hear some hope for your freedom.

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way.
I can't wait to look in the mirror,
Cuz I get better lookin each day.

To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man!
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble,
But I'm doin' the best that I can!

Yes Mac, I think you’ve got the human condition down to a tee! It’s true! We do delight in God’s commandments believe it or not. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, I guess, to “be doin the best that we can”. Keeping the law makes us feel alive and living by it nourishes our egos while God always seems to try to destroy our sense of self worth with his constant choosing and calling. He who delights in the law is like a tree planted by streams of water, as Psalm 1 puts it so succinctly, and who doesn’t want to be a luscious tree in the garden of God? God’s Word, calling us to lives of humility, begins to look like a big, delicious carrot you can chase after in your race toward perfection. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Maybe being humble doesn’t trip your trigger, but some commandments really do just sound darn right delightful, you’ve got to admit. For example, “Let mutual love continue”. Ahhh. Now, there is a delightful law if I ever did see one! I agree, let mutual love continue! I will love you and you will love me. I will scratch your back and you scratch mine. “Those who humble themselves will be exalted?” Well, sure! I can do that! I will be humble Lord if you exalt me, alright? This law is oh so delightful, dear Lord, because by loving you I get loved back. If I’m perfectly humble, aren’t I doing God a favor? Then he wouldn’t have had to die for me after all . . . or you, for that matter!

But the problem with this law as with any rule, law, or commandment is that it just won’t stay where it belongs. It quickly finds its way into your mind and into your worries. Then the law becomes your big salvation plan. Then the law becomes anything but delightful. It becomes addictive. You see, you can’t just keep one, you’ve got to keep them all. “I can’t wait to look in the mirror, cuz I get better lookin each day,” Mac says. That’s the idea at least. But the day soon comes when lookin in the mirror is the last thing you want to do. “For all fall short of the glory of God. When you break your favorite law, what will God think of you? In your failure to be humble, you find humility. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The apostle Paul once said in his letter to the Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In other words, you can love the law all you want, but you treat it like a wicked little thing. Paul goes on to say, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!” Can you hear it? Paul, the great apostle is calling himself a wretch! You too can delight in the law all you want, but the truth still stands: the more delightful the law becomes the more you either begin to either hate it or hate yourself. Why? Because the law is humiliating for you because it asks you to be humble. This is why Mac Davis’ song is so wonderfully ironic. The more you sing the praises of your humility the more your humility becomes pride . . . a very humbling thought, indeed.

The truth is that even God’s request for your humility ends up with all the other laws he gives you: you fall short and God saves you from your own efforts. God humbles you through the law because the law asks you to serve someone besides yourself through humility to your neighbor. You start spending more time looking at others than looking at yourself in the mirror. You forget about humbling yourself and start thinking of others as more important than yourself—you start acting out of humility without even thinking about it.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” So, what hope is there? What can you do in the face of this law? Wait. Just wait. Wait for God’s salvation. Wait for Jesus Christ. You are dead, remember? And Jesus has defeated death for you. You will be humbled—you can be sure of it! In your greatest accomplishments. . . in your longest sufferings. And then, when you least expect it, you will find your life hidden . . . and exalted . . . in humility . . . in Christ . . . in God. Amen.

Sermon Title: “Coming to the Feast”

Jack Turner
Columbia International University
Third Place, August 2006 Round

For those of you who may not be familiar with them, the core values of the US Navy and Marine Corps are “honor, courage, commitment.” My cousin learned them well as his Recruit Training Platoon shouted it, along with “Kill, kill, kill, Marine Corps,” each time they went for meals or performed exercises or sat down for mail call. I endured a similar experience as a young midshipman, often reflecting on theses core values whenever I was invited to perform physical training for punishment when I did something the upperclassmen disliked. Judging by how quickly I got in shape, I must have had ample opportunity to contemplate the meaning of honor. Honor is not something we talk much about in our society anymore. For many of us, there is probably no specific definition of honor that we have in mind, and so it simply becomes a word we toss about, if we use it at all, a word that is utterly devoid of tangible meaning. For those who are interested, the Navy’s definition of honor is uncompromising personal integrity.

In the ancient world, to say people were highly concerned with honor might be a bit of an understatement; obsessed is probably more accurate. However, the type of honor they were concerned with was not personal integrity, but with their own rights of birth or precedence. In short, one’s honor consisted of one’s fame, reputation, power, or precedence. While everyone was born with a certain level of dignity based on the rank of their parents and their gender, honor could be accrued in any number of ways, whether by winning a battle or war, sponsoring a civic event, or becoming successful in business and politics. Honor would be paid to an individual in a variety of ways, including allowing them right of way, granting them positions of authority, or awarding choice seats at banquets.

There is an old saying which I think is particularly relevant to the current text: “eat what is set before you.” As a little bit of historical background, from ancient times up until the last century, when one sat down for a meal, one had several dishes set down at different places at the table. At the head of the table one would find the meats and choice beverages whereas at the foot one would find less desirable vegetables and cheep drinks. Unlike the modern era where we pass dishes to one another so that each of us might receive a portion of everything on the table, in previous times one would eat only that which was in reach. Thus, one really did have to be content with what was set before them because there would be no opportunity to get anything better.

What Jesus is telling his audience in the parable about the banquet is to reduce their own self-perceived importance so that their real importance may be shown to all when they are taken to a better seat. More subtly, Jesus is also telling us that the one who can be content with less than what he deserves will nevertheless receive exactly what is coming to them and will be honored among his associates when he gets it. Thus, on the surface, Jesus is giving a lesson in good manners. To make it applicable to our situation, he might better have said, “When going to a congregational fellowship dinner, don’t bolt out of the church following the dismissal to make sure you can get a huge portion of macaroni and cheese.”

The first piece of advice would have struck a chord with his audience, and in all likelihood there would have been a few heads nodding in agreement since it is essentially a restatement of the advice given in the first lesson from Proverbs. However, Jesus’ second point about whom to invite to a dinner party would likely have turned everyone on their heads. It would have done so because it goes against the nature of what we think ought to be right. After all, who has a dinner party and doesn’t invite his or her friends and close associates? It’s a strange piece of advice, but it fits right in with Jesus’ concern for the poor and those neglected by society and his teachings about loving and serving those around us, especially those we consider to be of lesser status than we are.

At this point, we could stop the sermon and move on since a very important point about contentedness and humility has been made. However, I think there is a deeper meaning to both pieces of Jesus advice that will permit us some important insight into what salvation is all about, so perhaps you will indulge me a moment as I try to take us deeper into the text. In the parable, specifically concerning the wedding feast, we see the guests scrambling to acquire something; in this case, it is a better seat at the table and consequently a better selection of foods. In the parable, there are two people: the first one makes a mad dash to the head of the table to sit and eat the choice food, and another who sits at the end of the table where the least desirable dishes would have been served. In giving this example, I think Jesus is making a point not about good manners, a good a point about manners as it might be, but rather he is making point about the Kingdom itself.

The person who runs ahead could be accounted as the person who attempts to earn their place in heaven or to earn a better reward by their own efforts; the effort in this case is attempting to be quicker than others. But the host of the banquet quite literally puts this person back in his place, even though it causes him much embarrassment and shame. Herein, we see a subtle truth: one attends the banquet only because the host, who represents God in the story, has invited them. Nothing about either person, whether it be their great acts or place in society, has earned them a seat at the table, and certainly nothing of their own account, including speed, determined where they sat. Rather, it was the choice of the host to come to all the guests and extend the invitation to the banquet. The Greek word used here, keklemenoi, is better translated as “the elect” rather than our translation “guest” and only emphasizes the fact that those present were chosen to receive an invitation rather than thinking they could show up on their own.

Earlier, I mentioned that Jesus’ advice about inviting the lame and the sick would have struck his audience as illogical, and I said it was because it is counter-intuitive to invite someone to dinner who isn’t eventually going to invite you back or whom you do not owe an invitation to. But there is a deeper issue: in ancient Judean society, those whom Jesus mentions as being fitting guests in the house of a Pharisee, the poor, the lame, and the blind, were considered to be afflicted by G-d because they were sinners and thus were undesirable company for a supposedly righteous person; the Qumran community, the group that copied the Dead Sea Scrolls, believed that such people would be excluded from paradise. But this is not the way G-d thinks or how Jesus tells us to structure our interaction with people; far from it. Jesus is telling us to welcome the afflicted and the outcast and to have no fear of the social stigma attached to them. Our psalm reminds us that G-d gives his gifts specifically too the poor while the unrighteous, which might be read as the stingy rich, will waste away and come to nothing. It’s a pretty radical idea. This, of course, wasn’t the first time Jesus had gotten in trouble for associating himself with those whom society considered as being sinful, but it also goes along with what I was speaking of earlier about G-d’s prerogative in salvation. None of us have done anything deserving of being saved; in fact, all that the law required of us, we failed at miserably and on more than one occasion. The truth of the matter is that we are really no better off the Pharisees perceived the lame and the poor to be; only our supposed miserable status is one of perception rather than strict fact.

So what does any of this have to do with honor? Simply put, our honor is that of G-d rather than of ourselves. In his grace, he has chosen to honor humanity with his incarnation in Jesus Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit. The point Jesus is making in the second advice is really the support for understanding the first piece. As I said, we can do nothing on our own to earn our salvation: it is the free gift of Jesus Christ. On our own we were dishonorable, but through his mercy, G-d has chosen to give us a choice seat at his table, and not because we have or could do anything to deserve it, but because he simply chose to grant it to us. The disgrace that Jesus bore in Heb. 13.12 is actually our disgrace and our shame. All of our lessons in one way or another encourage us to honor those whom society ignores precisely because God could have ignored our sinfulness but instead chose to extend his mercy. I don’t think Jesus advice about inviting in the poor and the lame to a dinner party was meant to be taken allegorically, though there is certainly an allegorical element to it. I think he meant it quite literally, that we are to be willing to take in those whom society disregards and confront them with the incredible love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

While this parable is a warning against thinking we can or should earn our salvation, it nevertheless should not be used as an excuse to not help the poor. The author of Hebrews reminds us that doing good and sharing with others is a sacrifice that pleases G-d. Let us therefore cease doing good to earn our salvation, which will only end in our shame and disgrace, and let us seek to do good…for goodness’ sake.

Sermon Title: “Taking The Humble Seat”

Zachary R. Labagh
M.Sc.The. Student, The Lutheran THeological Seminary at Gettysburg
Fourth Place August 2006 Round

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O’ Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

I was reading an article entitled “Stewards of God’s Mysteries: Stewarding as a model of Congregational Ministry”1 the other day, and it was discussing how we view our role within the church. Many of us believe that this is “my church”; many of my colleagues have talked to me more than once about “their church”; however we forget that it is God’s church. This article discussed what it means to be stewards of God’s church. Christ has called us to the banquet, to serve others, and in doing so to serve the Church; however we forget, we forget that the church is not ours, and more importantly we forget to look for what God desires us to do rather than what we want to do. We need to look at the church through the lens of it being God’s church and realize that we need to take the humble seat in the church. That is what Jesus is calling to, to take the humble seat and serve.

We are called to serve. That is the bottom line. Jesus is telling us in this parable to be willing to go where no one else will go, to seek out those who need help, and not to push our religion on them, but rather to eat with them, and share what we have with them. We are to see ourselves as servants, servants to our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and servants to those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. This calling is not just for me, or the elected leaders of this church, but rather for all of us. We are called, by name, to serve. We have been invited to the banquet, and now it is our choice to choose what place we are going to take, at this moment. But as Jesus reminds us there may be someone else who the host is saving a seat for, therefore we should choose the lowest seat, the seat farthest from the host. It seems Lutherans get this during the church service, for we all like to sit as far back as possible. However this is not humorous to Jesus. We need to be willing to take the lowest place. To go out and find those who need help and welcome them in. To Serve God’s creation.

The Parable which Jesus speaks in Luke 14 reflects the passage of Proverbs 25:6 and 7. We are to recognize our status as servants. Yet we continually forget. We look at the church we attend as “Our Church, with my seat, and my place in it”. I remember an email I received when I was in college. It read a man drove into a church and parked his car. When he got out, someone came in behind him and yelled to him “that’s my spot I always park there.” Though the man was discouraged he walked into the church and sat down. Someone else came up to him and said “That’s my seat that where I always sit.” The man moved without saying a word, though even more discouraged. The service began and during the Confession and forgiveness, the man rose, and all saw him transform before their eyes. His clothes became ragged, his hands became bloodied, and he hobbled to the front of the church, stretching his hands out in front of the cross. He turned and looked at the people in the church, and said to them, “I took your place.”

Rather than seeing God’s church and God’s place for us in it. We struggle to find our place, because we are so concerned with keeping up with everyone else. We want the status, the wealth, the gifts, and goodies that everyone else has, and we can’t have them if we take the lowest seat. We can’t get the new car and house, if we give to those in need, and share what we have. Why would we dare to think of such things? We want the house with 5 bedrooms, even though we only use 1 and with a 4 car garage, because if we have it then we can fill them. How much do we actually need?

The scene of this parable is set at a banquet. A place where food is overflowing and there will surely be enough for all to eat. But no one is looking at the food, no one is looking at the tables bending with the weight of the food, but rather we are looking at everyone else, and where they are sitting. Today we have name cards to tell us where to sit. We go for a banquet and most places tell you where you can sit, yes you might be able to pick which seat at the table, but where is the table located in regards to the head table? In this we struggle. We struggle because we want to be as close as possible. If we desire this because we want to be close to God and have a close relationship with God, there is nothing wrong with that. However if we want to sit close to the head table so we can look down at those who are farther away, that is where the problem lies. We live in a society with wealth classifications, job classifications, religious classifications; we need to classify our lives. How do you classify your place at the table?

I’ve heard people say, “I deserve this seat, because I’ve given to the poor, and helped at the soup kitchens, and organized fund raisers to help others…This seat should be mine.” And there is the problem. Yes that person, did all these wonderful things, but why did they do them? In this statement, it is clear, they did these generous acts, not to benefit others, but so others could see them and benefit from it.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all to take this advise and seek out those in need and invited them to eat? How many people would not go hungry at night if this happened? How many people would not commit suicide because they think no one cares?

In Luke’s message we see Christ telling those who are surrounding him about a banquet, teaching how we should live. When one has a banquet we should not invite friends and family, expecting an invitation to another in return, but rather invite those who need to be fed. What an amazing way to discuss Holy Communion! We are invited, by Christ, to be fed. To be nourished, and filled not with that which perishes, but with the Bread of Life. We are the crippled, the lame, the needy. We are those who need to be fed, and we are the ones who cannot repay Jesus for this action. Christ gave himself over for us.

Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews also states our undeniable call to go forth and serve. We are to go out from the church, from those we know, and serve those we do not. We are called to go to where they are; instead of waiting for them to come to us, for if we choose the latter, we may be waiting for a long time, but if we go to them we bring Jesus to them in the moment. One of our biggest calls is to pray. I admire the Upstate New York Synod’s mission statement which reads “A Resurrection People, who Pray First, Walk Together, and Change Lives.” Prayer is the first step we should all take, asking what God desires us to do, and to be. When we pray and we ask for aid for those in need, we are doing God’s will. We are working for others. Not for ourselves. See the difference? That is a humbling experience when we realize that what we are doing is being done not for our benefit but for someone else. We have no right to sit at the banquet feast with Jesus, not even at the lowest seat. But we have been invited, and welcomed. And our call is to do the same for others. To welcome others, into the banquet of our lives. To share what we have with others, in order that we may give grace to them, and Glorify God. We are called to fulfill good, and share what we have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. This calling is not only for the leaders but for all. This is why at the beginning of our Gospel Jesus is questioning the leaders. To see their response. He knew the law. And he changed the law. The law governs us, but grace frees us. We are called as Christians to be doers of the Word, and live our lives according to Christ. Christ did not say that the laws are unimportant, or that we do not need to listen to them, but he interpreted these laws to make them inclusive. Welcoming the unclean, talking to the outcast, and children, eating with sinners, touching lepers and unclean women. Jesus humbled himself, He humbled himself when He came to earth, not as a king ripping open the clouds and descending, but as a child, a carpenters son. He then humbled Himself in His ministry, to eat, and share, and allow Himself to be seen with the lowest of the low. And then He humbled himself even more by dying on a cross, the lowest of all deaths, not because of what He did but because of what we did and continue to do.

It is Jesus’ life, His deeds, and actions, His compassion which we are to follow. We are also called to be humble servants of God’s will here and now. To not walk by those in need, but to help as we are able. We are called by Christ to do the same. To take the humble seat, to give to those in need. God calls the Israelites to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” in Micah 6:8. Christ is calling us to go out and welcome all into the banquet table. Where in the Old Testament only those worthy are invited, Jesus is changing this law, and saying those who need to be fed are welcomed. Christ challenges us to look for ways to help others and in doing so others can see Christ in us.

As we go out from this place, I would encourage you to look for just one opportunity this week to take the humble seat. To help out someone in need, that you would normally walk by. To encourage a co-worker who looks down. To spend some time with someone who is lonely. To Pray. To pray for those in need. Those who do not know Jesus, for those in difficult situations, for those in war areas, famine areas, poverty, for family and loved ones, for enemies and those we just don’t like. Pray. Take the humble seat. And see how your life will be affected by it. I don’t need to hear what you did next Sunday, or after you did it. God will know. And more importantly that person who you helped will know. Christ came for all of us. He took the humble seat, and now asks us to the banquet, and to invite guests. To share what we have with others, and to live with Christ in our lives, not only as a part of our lives, but thoroughly in our lives. Dear Lord, thank you for taking the humble seat, the seat we do not want to take, encourage us to live our lives as your servants, as stewards of your church. Grant us the courage to live as you lived, helping those in need. And Be with us when we need strength and aid. For you are the host of the great feast, you are the bread of life, which sustains and nourishes us always. Amen.

Jacobson, Rolf A. “Stewards of God’s Mysteries: Stewarding as a Model for
Congregational Ministry” Word and World Theology for Christian
Volume 26 Number 3 Summer 2006