The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r189.htm
s189g98 Somerton Park Sunday 22 30/8/98
"Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath ..." Luke 14:1
In today's gospel we are given three pericope, three stories, set in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. I think in other circumstances they might be called "cameos". The first is the curing of the man with dropsy and the consequential question about helping others in difficulties on the sabbath; the second is about choosing the places of honour, and the third is about inviting, not one's economic peers, but the poor and disadvantaged, to one's festivities. Initially these seem unrelated, yet are they really? I think that they are all about saying to the poor and disadvantaged: "Friend, move up higher ..."
Working backwards, perhaps the person who invited Jesus for this meal, the leader of the Pharisees, considered Jesus a suitable person to invite to his function. Perhaps he thought Jesus was someone whom it was useful to know, even if he didn't want to endorse Jesus' teaching or mission. We might say he was hedging his bets ... If Jesus turned out to be what others were claiming he might be, it might just be useful at the end of time to be able to say - "well I did have Jesus for a meal once". Jesus counters this by saying that there are plenty of people who need the food far more than he, each and every day, and that they deserve this man's consideration. If looking for a heavenly reward, that reward would be there if his host invited the poor and disadvantaged who lived nearby. There would never be any lack of such people. Opportunities for eternal salvation are all around.
Again it demonstrates to me that Jesus was not about setting himself up as a great leader or the founder of a new religion. He would have preferred the man to entertain those in need rather than himself. And he doesn't fail to say so. He bids the host look about him and see who needs lifting up, and to do it. Jesus is not interested in the slightest in the host's pretensions.
It needs to be pointed out also that Jesus doesn't care about the motives behind entertaining the poor. Jesus is quite comfortable to suggest to his host that he could earn his way into heaven by inviting the poor and disabled to his table. He entices him to do so, saying: "You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous". This is in stark contrast to how the teaching of St Paul is often portrayed when he talks about salvation by grace alone.
Jesus here comes much more on the side of St James who stresses the work that we do rather than the faith we hold ... "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe -- and shudder." (James 2:19). Notice particularly his words "Was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? (James 2:25). How reminiscent are these words of James to the words of Jesus: "If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions ...?" (James 2:2-4).
So, moving to the second of the little stories; if Jesus considered it was far more important (in the eternal salvation stakes) to invite "the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind" - then despite their appearances, these are the honoured guests at any celebration. Since they will not be able to repay in this life - and so the repayment will come at the end of time - it is they whom the host should honour with the invitation to "come up higher" - past the friends, brothers, relatives or rich neighbours ... Those who can repay now have proportionately less importance, because their presence at this table will not mean anything at all at the final judgment. Jesus invites the host to bid those who could ensure his eternal salvation to come up higher - even if / precisely because they are unable to repay the host.
And so we get back to the first of these short stories - to the healing with the man with dropsy.
My "Dictionary of the Bible" ed by James Hastings 1924 in an article on medicine by the Rev'd A.W.F. Blunt tells me: "Dropsy is common in Jerusalem. The cure of a case ... is recorded in Luke 14.2" (p599) It is frustrating (to say the least) to find such a seemingly authoritative answer which doesn't actually explain what is being described. The word "dropsy" is in fact a transliteration of the same Greek word : "hu-drop-ikos" and only occurs in the New Testament here. It may perhaps refer to bell's palsy, or to a spastic condition such as cerebral palsy. Alternatively it may refer to some fluid retention problem (the Greek word for water is "hydr" from which we get the word "hydro") - we would call it oedema I am told - but these days with the drug "Lasix" - it is not much of a problem. I suspect it is something obvious for it seems the fact that the person was healed was immediately clear to all. It probably wasn't that the person was accident prone - like the character "Frank Spencer" in the comedy "Some Mothers do have 'em"- for the proof of the curing of someone who was accident prone would only be apparent over time.
Last week we had the comparison of the desire to assist one's animals rather than other people who found themselves in difficulties on the sabbath day, so we need not repeat that message. But instead I focus on the words that the lawyers and Pharisees were "watching him closely" when Jesus raised up someone in need of cheer and healing. His concern is not with the powerful and able but with those in need and the disabled.
Jesus went to eat in the house of the leader of the Pharisees. Jesus did not just visit and eat with tax collectors and sinners - he ate and therefore accepted the contributions of one and all - including his "opposition" - the worthies in society - the scribes, the Pharisees. Indeed, Jesus even accepted willingly such hospitality of Herod and Pilate, though that was even less effusive than that of the religious authorities. The quarrel that the religious leaders had with Jesus therefore was not that he ignored them, or that Jesus criticised them - for Jesus says that they could be repaid at the "resurrection of the righteous". The quarrel that the religious leaders had was that Jesus accepted the contribution of others as well as their own. They wanted Jesus to accept their contributions and not anyone else's.
The constant downfall of Christianity as well as other religions is that they can become essentially uncharitable. Oh yes, we are ever ready to give of our material wealth to the poor, but are we prepared to share the possibility of salvation with someone who differs from us?
Jesus came to raise up those who were "bowed down" - to eat with one and all, to become flesh and dwell among us - full of grace and truth. He lived as he preached. He was the word made flesh, who came to live among us, full (not of advise or demands to repent, but full) of grace to lift up the poor and disadvantaged.
You all know that I have been an Anglican all my life, and other than a short stint in the Diocese of Willochra, have been in the Diocese of Adelaide. Ever since high school when I returned to attending Church on a regular basis, I have sometimes felt I have spent my existence being put down by various people.
I have sometimes felt put down by those who used to be called "spikes" in past times - Anglicans of the Anglo-Catholic variety for whom adherence to particular ritual forms of worship were the standard for acceptance into a "club".
But it is not just the spikes who put people down - some evangelicals can be quick to point out who is going to heaven and who isn't. The recent pronouncement that Princess Diana has gone to hell is but one example of that sort of thinking.
Charismatics can have put downs for those outside in their theology - those who don't speak in tongues can sometimes be considered less truly Christian and should be subservient to those who do.
Perhaps these things are unique to Anglicans in the Diocese of Adelaide, I don't know.
On Thursday week ago I went to a film called "Head On" - I wouldn't recommend anyone see it if you wish to see a film to enjoy. It is about the Greek community in Melbourne and the relations between the various other ethnic communities as well as those with other differences. The culture of constant put-downs, and the resultant anger and frustration is graphically displayed. As I considered this powerful film - I reflected how the Church I know is frequently little different.
As a little aside, as we have been hearing about the President of the United States in the news, no one seems to have asked how frequently Mr Clinton may have successfully resisted the temptations about him. You and I mere mortals have no conception of the range of temptations he has faced in coming to political power and the jealousies that that power inspires in others. Do those who put Mr Clinton down for his seeming one transgression, want to be judged by God by the same criterion they apply to him - neglecting every success and judging on one (supposed) failure. I certainly wouldn't!
The religious authorities of Jesus' day wanted Jesus to accept their contributions and not anyone else's, and in doing so they wanted Jesus to approve of their continuing putting down of the poor and disadvantaged. But Jesus did the opposite - he noticed the poor and disadvantaged and said to them "Friend, move up higher ..." And of course we all know the consequences of this policy ... Surely we are bidden also not to put people down for and reason, but to follow Jesus and bid those different from ourselves to "come up higher" and share with them the graciousness of God's love.
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