Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sitting next to Princess Margaret: Luke 14:1-24

If you Google “What if they threw a party and nobody came?” you get over a million hits including a Spanish local radio station and a pop song by Tom Flannery. Then there are all the derivatives: what if they threw a war and nobody came, what if they threw an inflation party and nobody game, an election party, a winter solstice party, an Alex Rodriguez party (A-Rod) and Madonna never came, a trial and nobody came, a press conference and nobody came, a caucus, an election, a convention, a culture war, a coup d’etat, a revolution, a crisis and nobody came.

If you throw your search engine the word “Luke” in addition, you get a whole lot of sermons based on this parable including one which assures us that it is a call to putting showers in the church basement for the down and outs.

To know what it really means we must look at the context.

Jesus had been invited to a party by a prominent Pharisee. You might think this was a great privilege. I remember being invited to a party where Princess Margaret was guest of honor. I even got to sit two away from her. Another party I went to was called a ‘trial by sherry’ party – it was part of a candidate selection process. They were assessing your manners. Would you use the right fork? Would you get drunk? Would you reveal your indiscretions? The Pharisee’s party was a bit like that. Luke tells us that Jesus was being carefully watched. This was a Friday night party – the Sabbath had started and they stuck a sick man in front of Jesus. If dropsy meant the same then as it means now, he was a man with terminal heart failure.

Crafty old Pharisees! They were goading him to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus goes straight into the attack. He asks the experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They refuse to commit themselves. If they said yes, their trap was sprung, if they said no they stood accused of callousness. So he healed him and sent him home and pushed home his point by asking them which of them would leave his son or even his ox trapped down a well for the whole of a Sabbath day.

Having noticed how keen they had all been to sit as close as possible to Princess Margaret (well, you know what I mean), he admonished them not to push themselves forward. Sit at the back and someone may notice you and invite you forward; sit at the front and it is likely that you’ll be shoved out of the way to give up your seat for someone more important. “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” He was reminding them of the well know Proverb (25:6-7). But having got them on the defensive he rams the point home. “And by the way, I couldn’t help noticing that you’ve only invited the toffs to this dinner. I can see what it is. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Your idea of love your neighbour is those who live in Canford Cliffs and Talbot Woods (or if you’re very lucky, Sandbanks.).” You’ve had your reward for your ‘kindness’. Instead, he says, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind –then you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

The phrase ‘resurrection of the righteous’ prompted one of the Pharisees to exclaim, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

What exactly was the point of this is not clear. Was he trying to change the subject? Was he embarrassed by the way the conversation was going? In any case it is an opportunity for Jesus to tell this story.

A certain man was throwing a great party with many people invited. The tradition there was to send out two invitations – first to see if the invitees wanted to come and second when everything was ready to say “Come now.” There had been no problem about getting people to say that they wanted to come – who’s going to refuse free food? But when they were asked to “come now” they started out with the lame excuses. ‘I’ve just bought a field and I must go and see it’ ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen and just on my way to try them out’ and ‘I’ve just got married’.

As excuses go these are of the calibre of ‘The dog ate my car keys. We're going to hitchhike to the vet’ or ‘I can’t come in today, my computer’s caught a virus’. I mean, the field won’t still be there tomorrow? Your life depends on trying out your oxen this moment? Your wife doesn’t like parties?

There are, of course, good reasons for turning down invitations. Perhaps, some of us need to say ‘No’ more often. But these aren’t reasons, they are trivial excuses. The truth is they didn’t want to go.

Have you ever put on a dinner and nobody wanted to come? It’s a pretty devastating experience. It’s not just the waste of money and all the hard work of preparation. You’re on the end of a pretty humiliating insult. It says, I don’t consider you as important as taking a stroll over my new property. You’re not worth as much to me as my job. Rather than come to your party I would rather stay a home and do nothing.

You can imagine that the party- thrower was pretty cross. He tell his servant to go through the city, scouring the streets and alleys for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind and when these have come in and there is still room for more, he sends them out again, this time outside the city to roads and country lanes to bring in the alien and the outcast.

Notice that the first group that he sends for are the same four categories, the poor the crippled the lame and the blind, that Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for, for not inviting to their dinners.

So what it is all about? Of course, the first lot who refuse to come to the party are the Pharisees themselves. In many ways the Pharisees were exemplary. They were Biblical scholars. They took their religion seriously. They obeyed religious law. They worked out that there were 613 commandments, 248 positive and 365 negative. They were Sabbath keepers. They determined that there were 39 prohibited acts on the Sabbath. They were exclusive. Josephus worked out that at the time of King Herod there were just 6000 of them.

In modern parlance they were box-tickers. They thought that simply by ticking all the boxes, keeping their noses clean and obeying the rules, their passage to heaven was assured. They claimed to fulfill the letter of the law, but when it came to keeping to the spirit of the law, they weren’t at the party at all. They thought that they were special, better than the ordinary Jew. They looked down on ‘tax collectors and sinners’. And as for the woman who washed Jesus’ his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with perfume - well if Jesus was really a prophet he’d know what sort of woman she was and have nothing to do with her. Jesus gives us a picture of a Pharisee at prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.” And he uses this same proverb again: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

The Pharisees were nit-pickers, always ready to criticize others. Jesus said of them, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus quotes Isaiah at them, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules made up by men.”

Those whom the party-giver drags in from the streets and alleys of the city are the very people the Pharisees despised. Although depicted as the poor, blind, crippled and lame, these are spiritual descriptions. We would call them the average Jewish man-in-the-street. This is an invitation to sinners to come in. The Pharisees despised them because they were sinners; Jesus loved them because they were sinners. Only the sick need a physician, he says. I have not come to righteous, but sinners to repentance.

But what of the third group - those from outside the city? The aliens and the outcasts. This was a group even more shocking to the Pharisees. They weren’t even Jews at all! The Jews prided themselves on being the Chosen people. Gentiles were called ‘Dogs’. Yet from Old Testament Times God had declared himself God of the whole world – not just of Israel. In Luke chapter 4 Jesus tells his followers, “There were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time yet Elijah was not sent to one of these, but to a widow in Zaraphath in the region of Sidon and there were many lepers in the time of Elisha, yet not one of these were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Just saying this was enough to make the Jews attempt to murder him. But in Luke chapter 7 it was not a Jew, but a Roman Centurion who understood what it meant to be a man under authority who had the faith to ask Jesus to heal his servant at a distance. And in Luke chapter 10 he told the story of a man who fell among thieves is was not a Jew, but a native of the hated Samaria who turned out to be the hero of the tale. And when he witnessed to the woman at the well it was not a Jewish woman, but a woman of Samaria. The mission of Jesus was primarily to the Jews. When a Greek woman from a place near to Tyre asked him to cleanse her daughter from an evil spirit he replied, “First let the children eat all they want, for it would not be right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” But in response to her witty answer that even dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table, he healed the girl. And when he cleansed the Temple of dove sellers and swindlers in Luke 19 he cried out, “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” He was quoting from Isaiah 56:7 – the full text is ‘My house will be house of prayer for all nations’. The area that they were despoiling was the Court of the Gentiles.

So that’s all right then. This is a parable told against the Pharisees, foretelling God’s casting aside of the Jews and replacing them with the Gentiles. We have nothing to worry about.

By no means. In Romans chapter 11 the Apostle Paul describes the cutting off of the Jews and the grafting in of the Gentiles in a rather elaborate gardening metaphor about olive trees. He tells us not to get cocky. Verse 19: You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

We Reformed Evangelicals are most prone to the sins of the Pharisees. We are Bible students like them. We take our religion seriously. We obey the law. We may well be Sabbatarians. We tithe. We are exclusive. We call ourselves the elect. We find it easy to be proud of ourselves and to look down on sinners. We often gather in middle class churches and we are not the friends of sinners but the friends of other Reformed Evangelicals.

Jesus warns his followers in Luke 12, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear behind closed doors will be proclaimed form the housetops.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these truly inspiring words. Thank you for being a good doctor and a man of true faith.

John Wagner said...


Not just Reformed Evangelicals. The same could be said about many of us. We must always be on guard against our own hypocrisy.

Thank you for your positive witness in your writings and the way you live out your faith.