A Guessing Game
Next to I Spy' or hiding something for them to find, kids love a guessing game. You can pass many a mile playing a game like "20 Questions". Our text can be a guessing game, but there is no guessing at what the goal of this text is. It's what we prayed in the Collect: "Increase in us true religion."
And you're first guess what is true religion is wrong even though you've made it based on the text. You've guessed that true religion is not choosing the place of honor but choosing the lowest seat, humbling yourself so you'll be exalted, and giving a banquet for the poor, crippled, lame, and blind who can't repay you so you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous. If this is what you've guessed, congratulations; you're religion is that of the pagan Plato. He said, "And in general, when you make a feast, invite not your friend, but the beggar and the empty souls for they will love you, and attend you, and come about your doors, and be the best pleased, and the most grateful, and will invoke blessings on your head" (Phaedrus, 233, d-e). Luther doesn't just judge this religion as pagan but Satanic. He says that servants of Satan know how to simulate love, concord, and humility doing whatever it takes to gain more respect and praise than others. "In short, they imagine that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim. 6:5)'" (LW 27, 99).
Guess what? Our text is not instructions for attending or giving a banquet. It's a parable. "When Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, He told them this parable." Our text is not prose but metaphor, simile, a parable which pictures what the kingdom of heaven is like using earthly pictures. If you take it as prose, as an answer to Mac Davis song, "O Lord it's Hard to Be Humble", then you have a doable law. I am able to choose the last seat at a banquet. I am able not to invite friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors and instead invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. But there is a nuance in this text that shows we're in the realm of the divine, where no effort of ours can take us. In this parable we're invited to a wedding, while we are only said to be able to give a luncheon or a banquet. From Genesis to Revelation, God portrays His relationship to His people as Groom to bride and as a wedding feast that God hosts. So, guess who does the inviting?
Now jump out of the parable. Go to the setting. Jesus is at the house "of a prominent Pharisee." Other translations have chief' or "ruler" of the Pharisees. The note in the NASB '77 says "a member of the Sanhedrin." This guy was very important and Jesus is invited to the man's post-synagogue meal. Almighty God in flesh and blood is at this meal being carefully watched, tested, trapped. Almighty God in the Person of Jesus Christ has been invited not to be fed but to be bled if possible, but in reality He is doing the inviting. After noting how the guests picked out the places of honor at the table, Jesus points out they are wrong. If you want to get ahead in the world, you have to appear humble, everyone loves the underdog, and if you don't want others resenting your wealth you have to be generous to the poor. Feigned, pretended, hypocritical humility and largess will do in this world. The billionaire who works a week on a Habitat for Humanity house is credited as if he would happily have the person whom the house is for as his next door neighbor. The multimillionaire inviting you to text 10 dollars for hurricane relief is credited as if he is giving millions of his own dollars. But God doesn't fake it, does He?
He comes into our flesh and blood; God almighty takes on flesh and blood not like an angel can by assuming human form for a time, but by descending into the womb of a virgin, by going through the drama and trauma of gestation, labor and delivery, and by being swatted on His behind to cry and clear His airway. The Creator comes into our world in such a humble way and then humbles Himself further by not always using His divine powers as a Man. He has no need to humble Himself to attend a meal at a chief Pharisees house so people can stare at Him in hopes of humiliating Him. He can make bread from stones. He who fed millions in the wilderness for 40 years, can certainly feed Himself. Yet He humbles Himself to be fed by His enemy, and He further humbles Himself by being poor. He says elsewhere He has less than animals do because they at least have someplace to lay their heads. And who at this banquet is not only the poor but the crippled, lame, and blind? Jesus the Messiah. The Lord says in Is. 42:19, "Who is blind but My Servant, and deaf like the Messenger I send?" And Is. 42:20 completes the setting of our text. Though His enemies were there carefully watching Jesus, they saw nothing as Isaiah says: "You have seen many things, but you do not observe them."
One guest at this table guesses' who really does the inviting here. Jesus closes the parable with you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." One guest who had been invited with Jesus says right after hearing these things:, "Blessed whoever will eat bread in the Kingdom of God." This text is about God inviting people into His kingdom and doing it through the Person and Work of Jesus. Think I'm saying more than the text does? That's because I left out a word. This word will pop what I just said into focus. It will be like a Polaroid picture. The truth that this is about God doing the inviting in Jesus will swim into view. "When one of those at the table with Him heard this, he said to Jesus" He's not making a random comment about being blessed to eat in God's Kingdom. He praises Jesus for this reality. He praises Jesus for inviting everyone, himself included, himself especially.
That's the last question in our guessing game. Guess who's invited? The insert has the article with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The Greek has no article with any of them. They're one group and you're not to pause to think about each one. But the ones you're not to invite all have the article: the friends of you, the brothers of you, neither the relatives nor rich neighbors. You're supposed to think about each one. Not this one; not that one, and not these particular people all of whom the world thinks should be invited. But you miss how this applies to the meal Jesus is at because the appointed text skips verses 2-6. There we read they had placed before Jesus "a man hugely swollen in his joints" (Message Bible). Think Elephant Man; think someone hard to look at. Someone you don't invite to a meal; someone they were daring Jesus to heal on the Sabbath so they could pounce. Someone they think has no right to be there, Jesus says does and in another parable 7 verses later Jesus says the swollen man is precisely whom God invites. He says God invites the poor and maimed and blind and crippled. Grouping them together with one article and inviting you to pause on each one by placing an and' between them.
If you're the poor and crippled and lame and blind, if you know you cannot repay God for even one of His blessings, if you know you have nothing but sin, death, and devils to offer, you're invited. Rather than giving you a doable law, a "how to be repaid at the resurrection", this text shows you how Jesus humbled Himself to take your place to heal you from your maladies. He endured the tormenting, the judging, the rejecting of church leaders, so that He could heal you of what you can't heal yourself. Do you remember when Jesus spoke the allegation in His enemies' mind that proved He was a fraud? "Physician heal yourself," they thought. At the cross, this same diabolical accusation came out. "Save yourself, come down from your cross; then we will believe in you."
Of course, if Jesus had come down from the cross there would be nothing to believe in. But He didn't. And He sat through this meal with His enemies starring daggers at Him. He sat with this horribly disfigured man setting right in front of Him. And even though He knew he would be further accused, rejected, and found guilty, He healed that man. Just like He has you. Having kept all of the laws that you can't and don't, He then paid the full price in blood, sweat, and tears that your sins cost. Once you pay for something, you own it. You can do with it what you will. So Jesus took your sins and threw them behind His back into the depths of the sea. Hear the splash and watch them go down, down, down not into a ring of fire but of forgiveness. And then just like He does with the man whom He heals here, He sends you away. He alone faces your enemies sin, death, and the devil who would make sport of you the way these church leaders had that poor, disfigured man.
"Go, you are free," are the last words the pastor speaks in the rite of Private Confession. Though not spoken, that's how the general absolution ends too. You are free of what you have confessed. It's off you for good; you're no more lamed, crippled, or blinded by it. The Communion dismissal says the same. What else does it mean to "depart in peace"? You leave without your sins, without your guilt, without your fears, without your worries, with nothing but your hopes, dreams, and God's kingdom which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rm. 14:17). And even if you're not communing, when I place my hand on the altar which after the Words of Institution has the Body and Blood of Jesus on it and raise my other hand over the congregation saying, "The peace of the Lord be with you always," I'm telling you the peace Christ won by giving His body and shedding His blood on the cross is here today for you too. Likewise, the 3,500 year old benediction the service ends with tells you the Lord lifts up His countenance on thee and gives thee peace.
Take it. One guy at this meal did. He recognized that Jesus was giving then what He promised at the resurrection of the righteous. "After hearing these things he said to Jesus, "Blessed is everyone who will eat." True religion was increased in that man, and guess who else? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20190922); Luke 14: 1, 7-14