Gospel Reading: Luke 14: 15-24
Good morning! I am so glad to be with you all here today; it was a fine summer, but I have missed chapel and am very happy to be back.
Over the summer my wife Anne and I passed back and forth Laurie King’s mystery novels about Mary Russell, a very bright young scholar who becomes involved with the allegedly retired Sherlock Holmes. In The Pirate King, Russell goes undercover as the crew member for a film about the making of a film of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. So, you have a novel about a character pretending to be only a crew member for a film company that is making a film about the making of a film of the story of pirates who go around singing a lot of songs. Russian dolls, Chinese boxes—frame within frame.
So it is with this morning’s gospel, although, alas, no singing pirates appear. Jesus tells this parable of a grand dinner when he is the Sabbath guest at a grand dinner with a lot of important people, and he tells it after he has already said to his host, a religious leader,
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 Jesus says this to his host after he has already told his fellow dinner guests that when they go to a dinner (they are at a dinner), they should sit in the lowly places lest they be told to move to make room for a more important person. And he has told that to his fellow guests after a man with dropsy—has he been brought in as a test?1—appears before him, and Jesus is quizzed about whether he ought to heal him on the Sabbath. (Jesus heals him and silences his interrogators with an apt quotation from Deuteronomy.) Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, frame within frame.
Within the larger frame of the Gospel of Luke, the repeated focus on the outcasts of Jesus’ world has prepared us for this scene:
- The mother of Jesus, in the words that made the text for our opening hymn, rejoices that God has seen her in her “lowliness” and envisions a time when the ruthless are cast aside and the lowly enthroned instead, when the hungry are filled and the rich sent away unfed (Luke 1)
- Poor shepherds are featured at Jesus’ birth (2)
- John the Baptist begins his ministry by telling his listeners to give their coats and their food to the poor (3)
- Jesus begins his ministry by quoting, Isaiah, declaring that
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free(4)
- And after Jesus has called the disciples, and the crowds are surging round them for healing, he turns to the twelve and says, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (6).
In the original context of Luke’s Gospel, that is of the very early church, the parable of powerful people who excuse themselves from a grand banquet could be read as a warning that there is little time left to repent before the world comes to an end. Certainly, as biblical scholar David Tiede writes, within the Gospel story this parable is an ominous sign for Jesus and his disciples of further rejection by the powerful yet to come.2 For us, who come upon this parable within the story of Jesus’ guest appearance at the religious leader’s dinner and within the larger frame of Luke’s gospel, the story reveals what Tiede wonderfully calls “the gracious extravagance and freedom” of the kingdom of God.3
The gracious extravagance and freedom of the kingdom of God: the liberty of Jesus to speak a bold, prophetic word before the powerful; the repeated affirmations that the poor will be blessed; the very real anger at those who would exclude the un-fashionable, the un-rich, the un-healthy, the un-credentialed, the un-certain from the good news of God’s mercy and love.
Dear friends and colleagues, I have become worried that we in the Christian church have done this. That is, perhaps without conscious intention but with obvious effect, we have sent the signal that the church is for those with a certain status, with a certain look, and with a certain knowledge of the faith. And as a consequence, the young and the not-so-young have been walking away. And in this college setting, I am particularly concerned that the young may have heard or seen some signal—not necessarily here but perhaps long before—that there is an entrance price: that in order to be invited, in order to belong, you must have agreed to a set of doctrines, or you must have worked out your uncertainties, or you must have achieved some status, or you must already belong to whatever the comfortable majority may be.
No, no, no! There is no price. Or if there is a price for human wholeness and hopefulness, the grace of a down-to-earth loving God4 who bore and who bears our suffering and fear has already paid it for all of us. As the Lutheran theologian Darrell Jodock has written, ours is not a “decision theology,” though such a theology is powerfully and destructively present in American religious life.5 Please listen: We do not say, you must believe this or that thing, and then you will be saved. And we do not say that you must be this or that thing—straight or gay, affluent or struggling, liberal or conservative—in order to have a place at the banquet in the kingdom of God. We say instead that God has already invited you, as God invited the “lowly” Mary to bear God’s human form, as God invited the unfashionably sick man to the religious leader’s house to be healed, as Jesus insists that even and especially the outcast have an honored place.
Behind me throughout this talk has been an image of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (completed within two years of his death in 1669). It composes his vision of the parable told in the very next chapter of Luke as the religious leaders are complaining that even tax collectors and sinners are gathering with Jesus. It is worth hours of silent reflection, but I must come to a close now. You know the story: the prodigal squanders his wealth and status, finds himself wretched and alone, and decides to come back. In Rembrandt’s painting his clothes are filthy, his feet are bare, his head is shaven so that he looks to us like a cancer patient—and his face rests on the chest of his father, whose hands rest on him in blessing. You will remember from Luke that the prodigal has practiced a speech, a speech of his unworthiness that he thinks might be his ticket back in to his father’s grace. But before he can speak his rehearsed lines, his father has already run to meet and embrace him. He gives the speech then, but his father is already ordering the grand dinner in his honor.
Beloved of God, this is the gospel. If you have always felt at home here, you belong; if you have walked away, you belong; if you wrestle with doubt and confusion and fear, you belong. Your belief, your status, your knowledge, your health: these are not the required ticket. There is no ticket: There is only and always, the love of God, already rushing to meet you, already come down to earth, already the breath of life dwelling within you. Amen.
1 Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), p. 261.
2 Tiede, p. 268.
3 Tiede, p. 261.
4 Darrell Jodock, “Higher Education Built on a Lutheran Foundation,” LECNA, Amelia Island, Florida, February 11, 2013, p. 4.
5 Jodock, p. 3.