“Last minute lectionary” is a series of short thoughts on the week’s narrative/Gospel lectionary reading.
Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NIV)
Jesus at a Pharisee’s House
14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In our women’s Bible study this week we got to talking about how we still tend to rely on works, on ticking boxes to prove that we are living spiritually worthy lives. In parable terms, we “do” to try to earn a seat at the table – and the more we “do”, the higher up we feel entitled to sit! I think this is especially true of those of us who have been Christians for a while or who are involved in ministry. As my friend Risa pointed out, a standard of “busyness” has crept into our lives. We connect being busy with being holy – “doing works” with “being righteous.”
Earlier this week I linked to an article called “Is your pastor polishing a turd?” It asks some interesting questions about what we’re preaching in churches: are we really preaching just grace, or has a measure (or measures!) of works crept in? Because, frankly, preaching and living “just grace” is hard. It requires a great deal of nerve and humility to say “all welcome” and really mean it, especially when we start thinking about how those “all” might look or act. No, it’s much easier and safer and requires far less vulnerability to put a little star behind the word grace, and to qualify it with law and works. All welcome – but dress nice. All welcome – but leave any visible sin at the door. All welcome – but act, talk and think the same way we do. All welcome – but not really.
But here’s the thing about that little caveat, and about allowing works to define our spiritual worthiness: the same works that glorify us when things go well will condemn us when things do not. The same “standard” that keeps our churches safe from vulnerability will turn on us the moment we become vulnerable in such an environment. Works, spoiler alert, don’t work; just grace does.
The people at that Pharisee’s house thought they found themselves on the good side of works that day, and so they arranged themselves in places of honour – ahead of the Son of God. In our sermons, in our churches, in our own quiet times, we need to ask ourselves whether we do the same. Do we feel so entitled by works that we ultimately place ourselves and our congregations above the grace of God? Just who do we think we are?
In Hebrew 6:1 we read, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance of acts that lead to death, and of faith in God…” We’re always so quick to look for meat instead of milk (1 Corinthians 3:2), but that begs the question: how sure are we that we’ve got grace down? Or faith, instruction, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2-3)? Since we’re so keen on ticking boxes – can we really, really tick these boxes?
Perhaps the best thing that we as individuals in ministry and as congregations can do, is to question our seat at the table. Perhaps the best thing for us is not to seek out meat, but to wean ourselves off the notion that we will ever leave milk behind. For “When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) Has the arrogance of works destroyed our foundation of grace and humility?
The way closer to God is not to “work” for a higher seat at the table. It is not to “earn” his love, approval or grace. It is in realising that it is only by his hand that we are seated at the table at all that we are nearest to him. When we humble ourselves, we echo his character most closely.
Blessings for your sermons,