Luke’s gospel, chapter 14, describes a social event during Jesus’ teaching ministry, as he was traveling around the countryside. Jesus was one of many traveling teachers, some with a large following and some with only a few followers. As these traveling teachers came through a town, the local religious leaders would like to take a look at them. Sometimes this meant showing up in the crowd where Jesus was teaching, and sometimes it involved inviting him to come to visit around the table for dinner. Usually the host would invite some colleagues and friends, folks who would be interested in hearing what Jesus had to say up close and personal. We can join them for Sabbath dinner, and listen in on the conversation.
Our host is a leader of Pharisees, and sometimes Pharisees are pictured as the villains of the Gospels—enemies who argued with Jesus everywhere he went. Pharisees were actually like Puritans in first century Israel, a group that was trying to get back to basics and restore the purity of their faith and daily lives. They were very concerned about how to obey the law of Moses in practice, and so they would debate about what one should do or not do in specific situations. They liked to have representatives from both sides of a question, so that the final choice of what to do was thoroughly thought through. While they come across as always arguing with Jesus, they actually argued with each other most of the time as well.
Since Jesus was the special guest at dinner, he was the center of attention, with everyone watching him closely. He was on center stage, and when he saw a man suffering from dropsy, which is some kind of swelling, Jesus used the occasion to make a point.
When Pharisees were thinking about a particular principle, they usually looked for an example to explore their options. It turns out that whether or not you can heal on the Sabbath was a question they were thinking about at the time. They were worrying about what kinds of things you could do to help someone who is sick, knowing that there were things you shouldn’t do on the Sabbath because of the Sabbath regulation for rest (not walking far, not carrying things, etc.). When Jesus picked out this man to heal, he was entering an ongoing conversation that the Pharisees were having with each other. When Jesus asked those around him, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?,” he was asking them a question they were working on, but hadn’t come to a decision about yet.
I found out about this quandary in seminary, when I was in a class that had half Christian and half Jewish students. My study partner was a rabbi from Westwood, and he told me about the place where the early rabbis recorded their decision on the question of healing on the Sabbath. It’s in the Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael, written around the year 150 CE.
I want to show it to you so you can hear the way the rabbis talked with each other. This is from Jacob Neusner, Mekhilta According to Rabbi Ishmael: An Analytical Translation, Vol. 2, Amalek, Bahodesh, Neziqin, Kaspa and Shabbata (Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1988) 254.
– Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Aquiba were going along a road, with Levi the net maker and Ishmael, son of Rabbi Eleazar going after them.
– They asked this question before them, “How do we know that danger to life overrides the laws of the Sabbath?”
– Rabbi Ishmael answered, saying, “Scripture says, ‘If a thief is found breaking in’ (Exodus 22:1).
– “Of what sort of case does Scripture speak? It is a case of doubt whether or not the burglar came only to steal or to kill. …
– “If the matter of bloodshed … overrides the prohibition of the Sabbath, all the more so the saving of life should override the prohibitions of the Sabbath!”
– Rabbi Eleazar responded, saying “If circumcision, which concerns only one of the limbs of a man, overrides the prohibitions of the Sabbath, all the more so the saving of the rest of the entire body!”
– They said to him, “The very evidence you present proves the weakness of your proof. … the prohibitions of the Sabbath will be only overridden only in the case of certainty, if we are sure that someone will die if one does not take action.”
– Rabbi Aquiba says, “If the penalty for murder overrides the Temple service, which overrides the Sabbath, all the more so the saving of a life should override the Sabbath.”
Thus the matter is decided. Rabbi Aquiba has the prevailing position. You can and should help a person in trouble, even if you don’t know for sure that he’ll die without your intervention.
This rabbinic decision, only reached after the time of Jesus, was that yes, one may heal on the Sabbath. Although Jesus only represented one voice in the discussion with the Pharisees, he turned out to be on the side that ultimately won the consensus. In engaging in these conversations, Jesus was not breaking or rejecting the law, but working to establish its boundaries and priorities, using the kind of discussion that was expected among his peers.
When he healed this man in the middle of a group of experts who were still arguing about what was the right thing to do, Jesus made a very strong statement. Yes, you should heal on the Sabbath. You should heal whoever you see who needs help, not waiting to check his bank account or his attendance at church. You should heal and you should help anyone who is at risk or in danger on the Sabbath. Jesus took this even farther, by expanding it to include even animals who are at risk of their lives, with those who can be helped or healed on the Sabbath.
So, having healed the man and sent him on his way, Jesus joined the other guests going in to dinner. He was interested in watching the way the guests arranged themselves and chose the places they wanted to sit. Have you ever found yourself in this kind of situation, going into sit down for a meal, with a bunch of people in a cafeteria or a big dining room? What do you do? Try to find someone you know to sit next to? See someone you want to impress and get close to them? In those days, the closer you sit to somebody important, the better your seat.
I was actually in a meeting like that once. The senior executives of the company I was working for, were all seated on one side of a long table, the CEO in the center and folks seated in order of rank, the top guys toward the center, lower ranks toward the edges. At the last minute, the company president came in. He walked over to where the CEO was sitting. Everyone on that side of the CEO stood up and moved over one seat to make a space for him, next to the CEO. I thought I was looking as some royal court on Masterpiece Theater.
Jesus knew how this kind of status thing worked, and he clearly didn’t like it much. He said.
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; 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. 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
In the time of Jesus, social status was visible everywhere. High status people got all the best—the best seats, the best food, the best service, the best accommodations. Low status people got the leftovers, and sometimes nothing at all. Privilege was everything, and humility was nothing anyone would want to be seen to have. Jesus was saying something that his listeners couldn’t understand, because it reversed all that they had ever experienced. We don’t hear their reaction this time, but I imagine it was some kind of stunned silence.
Humble folks, low status folks, had no individual value in society in those days. Where they were useful—farming, serving, or whatever—they were considered interchangeable and replaceable. By breaking social distinctions, Jesus was mixing folks of different status with each other. How could you tell who was who? You might be talking with someone beneath your dignity, or trying to function with someone far above you. How would you know how to speak to them? Should you bow to them or expect the other person to bow to you? It would be like taking an army and removing all the rank labels from the uniforms. You wouldn’t be able to tell the general from the privates, and the captains and the sergeants would look alike. Without any way to tell people apart by status, you can’t include or exclude people based on their status.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on to say
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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Why would anyone want to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind to a banquet? Would you look forward to their company? Would you be able to get them to do you some favors? Could you depend on them to have good table manners, and not make a mess of your dining room? This was unheard of.
In the time of Jesus, friendship had more well defined expectations that it does today. A social relationship was a social contract, not written but understood by everybody. If someone gave you an expensive present, you owed that person a present just as expensive. If you were invited to a steak dinner, repaying your host with an invitation to hot dogs wouldn’t pay your obligation. You’d need to repay with the same kind and level of meal that you received. If you invited friends or relatives or rich neighbors, you were assured of having matching invitations coming back to you. Inviting folks who couldn’t repay your hospitality made no sense at all, to most of those who were listening to Jesus.
Only one of the guests seemed to get it. One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This may seem obvious to us, but Jesus knew how few would appreciate what they were really being invited to share.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t invite guests to my house very often. To begin with, I’m not a very good cook. Actually, I’m a really terrible cook, so folks who come to my place for dinner are taking a significant risk. But when I’ve done my best—cleaned the house, thought through the menu, followed the recipes as best I could, and put the best plates on the table—there’s still that terrible moment, just before the guests arrive, when everything is ready and I’m suddenly afraid that no one will show up.
This is exactly what happened to the man Jesus talked about. Jesus said …,
Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.
In this parable, we know that the host represents God, who is giving the dinner party, the one at the end of time that celebrates the resurrection of the righteous. He begins by inviting all the A list guests—the rich, the famous, the successful, the admired. But it turns out that those high-profile guests are too busy with their impressive lives, to bother showing up for the dinner. The busyness of their important engagements, means more to them than the invitation to the celebration.
How would you feel if you were this host, with all the food ready and no one to enjoy it? At first I’d be embarrassed, sure that I’d made some mistake, like getting the date wrong. When I figured out that those invited just didn’t care enough to make time to come, I’d get mad, just like the host in the story. He’s invited folks he thought were his friends. He’s just received a big load of disrespect—his invitation is worth less than a walk in the fields or working with some oxen. I actually can understand the newly-weds making a priority of their honeymoon, but the other excuses are pretty pathetic. He’s been insulted very publicly.
As Jesus told it, the host gets mad at the ungrateful folks who won’t take the time to enjoy his hospitality. He still wants to have a big party, and he doesn’t want to party alone. Who can he invite at the last minute? Jesus said,
Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’
The slave brought in everyone he could find who was really in need of a meal, but there was still more food to go around. On his second trip I hope he knocked on every door, because I would probably have been sitting in a corner somewhere, just wishing someone would invite me to a party. I’d probably even have said, “no, not me, I don’t have a nice enough outfit” when the slave asked the first time. When he showed up again and made me get up and come as I was, I would have gone along.
Would I have had a good time at the party? You bet. Would it have been the best fun I had all year? Probably. Would I have felt I deserved to be invited to the next one? Not a chance. I could never earn the status that gets an invitation to the kind of parties you see in People magazine.
And this brings us to the point of all of these stories. God doesn’t use the same standards that high society does, when it comes to handing out invitations and blessings. Whether it’s healing our sickness, giving us a good seat at the table, doing favors for those who can’t pay them back, or choosing guests for a celebration, God’s ways are not our ways.
One of my teachers, Haddon Robinson, once told the story of a dream he had. In the dream, he’d died and was waiting at the gates of heaven, while the angel looked him up in the book of life. When the angel started to open the gate, he asked if he was invited in because he was one of Time Magazine’s ten best preachers in the U.S. “No,” said the angel. “Do you remember the time after a service, when you saw a woman crying all alone in the empty church? You went over to talk with her and comfort her. That’s the kind of action that got you in here.” Haddon Robinson was one of those rare people who had both—fame and status, and true humility and kindness. We learn from Jesus which of those really matters most.
This brings us to the title of this talk, Who Is Invited? I didn’t pick that title, but I think it’s a really good question. Who is invited? Who is invited to dinner in the Kingdom of God? It’s not the ones who are sure they deserve it. It’s not the ones who are so busy being themselves that they don’t listen for the invitation. This is for all those who can hear the invitation, and who are willing to respond to it. We’re all invited, whoever we’ve been, whatever challenges we’ve faced, and whatever faults and virtues we have. We’re all invited to share in the love that God offers us through Jesus.
We’ve all heard Jesus say, “I stand at the door and knock.” It wasn’t until I started working with this scripture that I started to think about how it might feel to be on the other side of this invitation. I know I’ve spent some time standing outside of a door and knocking, hearing people inside having a good time, too busy to come to the door. That was a very sad and lonely place to be, feeling rejected by the very people I wanted to be with. I know that Jesus is patient and that God’s love never runs out. But in all that time before I took the invitation seriously, I never thought about the rejection and disrespect I was showing for the one who made it.
If you’ve accepted the invitation and made Jesus a part of your life, this is a good time to thank God for the blessings you’ve received. If you’ve heard the invitation, no matter how many times, but thought you didn’t really deserve it, think again. If you heard the invitation and said “I’ll get back to you later,” make that later today. The invitation really is for you, too.
Who is invited? Absolutely everyone is invited, rich and poor, popular and unpopular, good-looking, ugly, and everyone in between. But most important, you’re invited. Every one of us in this room is invited to be part of the family of Jesus, to be his brothers and sisters, to be welcome in his Father’s house and at his Father’s table. May we all hear and accept his invitation. Amen.