Proper 17c, August 28, 2016

August 29, 2016

Mr. Manners

Luke 14:1, 7-14


1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at 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 the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “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.”


My 40th high school reunion will be taking place in October. I was in the Wynne High School Class of 1976. There are two notable things about that year. It was the bicentennial year of our nation and the peak year in popularity for men’s pastel-colored polyester leisure suits. These things made me feel like it was a very special year to graduate from high school. I don’t know what came of my baby blue leisure suit, but I so regret not being able to pull it out for the event.


I sent in my registration for the reunion, and there was a bit of questionnaire included in it. I was asked to provide some basic biographical information about my family and my work and my interests. And that wasn’t too hard to pull together, but there was one question that sort of stumped me. On one line it said: Notable accomplishments. And then in parenthesis it said: (Please be brief).


I wasn’t really expecting this request, and I struggled to decide how to respond to it. I really didn’t know what to say, and it’s not that I was trying to figure out how to keep it brief. I couldn’t really think of anything that rose to the level of a notable accomplishment, so I responded by saying: Yet to be determined.


Of course the truth is that I greatly value the appearance genuine humility, and I take great pride in my ability to seem unconcerned about my lack of notable accomplishments. I feel very successful at that. Vanity and self-serving behavior can assume many different forms, and I have chosen to excel in the field of false modesty. I have the amazing ability to shield my raging ego behind the façade of a humble person. They wanted me to keep it brief, so I chose not to explain how masterful I am at appearing to be comfortable with my modest level of accomplishments.


You however, are not so fortunate. I am here to testify that spiritual deficiency can manifest itself in many different ways. There is this temptation to believe that arrogance and self-important indulgence only manifests itself in the kind of behavior that was exhibited at the dinner Jesus attended at the home of the leader of the Pharisees, but it’s not. Spiritual poverty doesn’t always take the form of aggressive self-assertiveness. It can emerge in any number of ways.


Of course it’s not uncommon for pseudo-spirituality to turn in to unbridled self-promotion, and such behavior was on full display when this large group of well-positioned men attended the dinner at the home of the leader of the Pharisees. There wasn’t any false modesty on parade that night. What Jesus witnessed in that house was raw self-promotion and he was disturbed by it. He was troubled to find that these men who were in positions of spiritual guidance for the people of Israel were totally oblivious to the nature of true spirituality.


We’re told that Jesus told them a parable, but in some ways this story doesn’t fit the formula for a parable. Generally speaking, parables were fictional stories that went in odd directions in order to illustrate a particular aspect of the kingdom of God. A good example would be the story of the good Samaritan. That story took a turn that served to disrupt commonly held feelings about a group of people that they generally considered to be spiritually unfit. It was designed to be provocative and unsettling.


What Jesus told the Pharisees wasn’t as much of a fictional story with a startling conclusion, it’s more along the line of straight advice on how to behave, but the advice rises to the level of a parable because it’s such unexpected advice. The intention of a parable is to enable a person to see a situation in a new manner, and that’s exactly what this story does. What Jesus had to say to the people who were in attendance at that dinner was shocking advice, and in so doing he was trying to help them see God in a new manner.


The advice columnist, Ms. Manners, came to mind when I read this passage of scripture. I’m really not sure if she’s still dispensing wisdom about etiquette, but what Jesus did was similar to what she did and may still do. Only Jesus gave his advice in person and it was unsolicited, which is probably something Ms. Manners would advise against. And the instructions Jesus provided don’t exactly fall within the guidelines of the traditional rules of etiquette.


Traditional rules of etiquette are useful to understand on some level. It’s not good to be known for the sounds you make at the dinner-table or to be remembered for the manner in which you grab the salt. There is a good amount of consideration built into the rules of etiquette. But the traditional rules of etiquette aren’t just about training people to be considerate and respectful. There is another purpose of these traditions, and it is to distinguish between people who know how to act in proper society and those who don’t. The rules of etiquette are designed to reflect polish and refinement, and it’s essential to exercise proper etiquette if you want to fit in with people who live in nice places.


And you might say Jesus was trying to do the same thing, but instead of trying to be pleasing to people who live in nice places on earth, Jesus was instructing people on how to behave if you want to be at home in the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were trying to figure out how to impress one another, Jesus was talking about the way we should live if we want to make an impression on the saints in heaven.


After giving his unsolicited advice about where to sit, Jesus then shared some unconventional thoughts on developing the guest list for an important social event. It comes across as odd advice to invite people who are unable to return the favor if you are oriented around your social standing in this world, but it makes perfect sense for a person who is oriented around the Kingdom of God. There is a sense in which Jesus assumed the role of Mr. Manners at this dinner party, but his advice was not on how to navigate through society in a graceful manner. He gave his advice on how to act when you want to gain entrance in the Kingdom of God.


The fact that Jesus engaged in this critique of the guests at this dinner party was an odd turn of events, because Jesus was the one they expected to scrutinize. Jesus had been invited to this dinner so the most powerful people in the community could make an assessment of who they thought he was. They were wanting to take a good look at him, and they weren’t just wanting to see if he knew which fork to eat his salad with. Jesus was suspected of leading people astray — of doing things that defied their rules of religious etiquette.


The Pharisees recognized that Jesus was a person with a growing amount of power and authority. He wouldn’t have been invited to this high-powered dinner if that had not been the case. But the Pharisees didn’t approve of the way in which Jesus used his power. He touched people who they considered to be defiled. He didn’t observe the Sabbath in the way they thought it should be observed, and he didn’t say nice things about powerful people. Jesus didn’t do things that would endear him to those who were in high places, and that fueled their suspicion of him.


They were right to eye him with suspicion, for he was interested in turning people away from their way of thinking. When Jesus told them where they should sit when they attend a wedding banquet, he was revealing the radical difference between the attitude and activity of a person who wants to be faithful to God and the attitude of those who live to serve themselves.


And he was talking to us as much as he was talking to them. It’s always been easy to confuse our own personal agendas with what we consider to be righteous behavior. It’s not always easy for us to see the way in which we do this, but it was obvious to Jesus, and Jesus wants us to avoid that most profound form of humiliation. Arrogant behavior can feel very satisfying to our fragile egos, but in actuality, the ways in which we try to assert ourselves over other people can be detrimental to our souls.


Jesus spoke of what it takes to be at home in the Kingdom of God, and the manner in which the Pharisees lived placed them on the outside of that community. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God I’m convinced he was speaking of a community that is both in this world and beyond. It isn’t just a community that we enter upon departure from this world – I believe we can step into it while we’re still in the flesh. I think Jesus experienced it among the people who were cast out of the official religious community, and this is why he advised inviting such an unusual group of people to dinner. I think Jesus saw the Pharisees as living apart from that holy community, and he doesn’t want us to make that same mistake.


Jesus said that when we find ourselves in the position of hosts we shouldn’t invite people who can somehow repay us, but we should reach out to people who have more needs than resources. His advice to invite victims of various infirmities wasn’t about charity, it was about getting in touch with people who understand true dependence on God. It was about associating with people who actually live without pretense. It was about getting a taste for life in the Kingdom of God.


To abide in the Kingdom of God is to live with values that are opposed to that which is generally valued on earth. Jesus’ advice is that we seek to satisfy God and God alone. Jesus wanted us to know that we are not receiving the best reward if we’re only going after the stuff and the status.


I sort of hated that I didn’t have a few powerful awards and titles that I could have listed as notable accomplishments for my high school reunion. It’s hard not to want to be measurably successful, but I think we all know that the most powerful things any of us accomplish are largely immeasurable in our worldly ways.


Our faith doesn’t require us to somehow live in a manner that’s disconnected from the operations of this world, but our calling is not to be defined by the standards of this world. It’s not a bad thing for us to consider what we would list as our notable accomplishments. In fact it’s probably a good thing to assess where we are and what we are seeking to do. It’s also good to know that much is yet to be determined for all of us, and by the grace of God we will continue to grow in our understanding of what it will take to actually accomplish great things for the kingdom of God.


Thanks be to God.




One Response to “Proper 17c, August 28, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    This message reminds me of a quote that I read yesterday and further amplified on my FB page yesterday, “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves”.

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