Why did Jesus teach the way he did? Why did he tell stories and say provocative, even shocking things to give his hearers pause? Remember, Jesus’ culture was an oral culture and most of his hearers would not have been able to read and write. His sayings were designed to be memorable – so they would not be easily forgotten. They were intended to shake things up and knock his hearers off their heels so that they would be open to seeing God and the world and their place in it differently.
We all know all too well how we are influenced and shaped by the mores, values, customs, and practices of our culture. We are all to some degree children of our culure. None of us escape the influence and impact of our culture – for good or bad. And our culture has a way of putting us asleep spiritually. Business as usual and common speech will not jar us awake. We need a jolt. Jesus’ words and deeds were designed to be jolting.
Jesus zeroed in on common assumptions and practices that he felt were in conflict with the values and ethics of God’s kingdom. In this first passage in our Gospel text for today Jesus takes on the almost universal human desire and quest for position, place, and power. Jesus says,
“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.” Then comes the conclusion: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke calls this a parable, but it isn’t really a parable in the way that we normally think of parables. Clearly, the term parable could be applied to almost anything meant to serve as an illustration of God’s will and way. This is not a story, but rather more like wise council where Jesus is basically drawing upon wisdom teaching from his own religious tradition. The wise teacher of the book of Proverbs offers similar advice. He says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). This is basically what Jesus is saying here isn’t it? I’m sure Jesus had this instruction from Proverbs in mind when he framed the advice we read here in Luke. This is wise council.
But is that it? Just good advice? Jesus is certainly not laying out a strategy for acquiring honor is he? I’m pretty sure Jesus is not saying: You need to be humble so you will be exalted. The host may invite you to a place of honor or he may not, that is the prerogative of the host. Jesus, of course, would have no interest in providing any kind of strategy for gaining honor. When the disciples were caught arguing about who should be the greatest among them, Jesus tore into them and told them they were acting like tyrants and rulers who pursue lordship over others. He reminded them that as his disciples they were called to be servants – and not just servants of people they liked, or people who would reward them or honor them or recognize their service. Oh no, Jesus told them that they were called to be servants of all. And here in the next paragraph of the Lukan text it becomes clear who the “all” includes - “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
This teaching of Jesus calls to mind a story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time years ago when he was pastoring in Tennessee. There was a girl about seven years old who came for Sunday School, and sometimes her parents let her stay for worship. Her parents had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant. They were both upwardly mobile and very ambitious, and didn’t see any need for church.
On Saturday nights her parents hosted parties at their house as part of the upwardly mobile thing to do. They made sure they invited the right people – the people at the top of the chain. But almost every Sunday this beautiful little girl was in church.
One Sunday morning Craddock looked out and noticed that her parents were with her. And then after the sermon, at the close of the service, when an invitation to discipleship was extended, Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the front and confessed commitment to Christ, which caught Fred by total surprise. Afterward Fred asked, “What prompted this commitment?”
They said, “Well, we had a party last night again, and it got a little loud and we woke up our daughter. She trotted downstairs to about the third step. When she saw that we were eating and drinking, she said rather loudly so all could hear, ‘Can I say the blessing?’ Then she just rattled off, ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Good night, everybody.’ Then she trotted back upstairs to her bed. Well, someone said, ‘Oh, it’s late, it’s time to go.’ Someone else said, ‘We’ve stayed too long.’ Within two minutes the room was empty.”
They told Fred that as they began cleaning up, picking up crumpled napkins and spilled peanuts and half sandwiches, and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen, mom and dad met with trays in hand at the kitchen sink. They looked at each other, and dad expressed to mom what both were thinking. He said, “Where do we think we’re going?” They came to the startling realization, maybe for the first time, that they were investing in the wrong things – that they were focusing on, being caught up with the wrong things.
Wisdom like Jesus shares here is designed to get us to pause and ask these kind of questions of ourselves: Where are we going? What are we looking for? What’s are real purpose? There really isn’t anything too radical here, but the conclusion strikes a theme that reverberates throughout Luke’s Gospel: the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted. A reversal is coming. Things will be turned upside down and inside out.
This theme is introduced my Mary in her Song of Praise at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Mary sings in the past tense. She imagines God’s kingdom as something already implemented. She says, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Things will be not as they are because God is going to turn the world upside-down and inside-out. Jesus imagines an alternative world. This is not business as usual. And in this world the lowly are exalted and the hungry are fed. The powerful are brought down and there is a level playing field.
This first passage prepares us for next passage/paragraph that is somewhat shocking. Jesus says: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, [And why is that?] in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” [And we might ask, What’s so bad about that?]
Depending on how you view your relatives, this could be your favorite verse in the Bible. Jesus is intentionally being provocative here, like when he says, “Sell all your possessions, and give to the poor.” Or when he says, “If your hand causes offense, then cut it off.” We would no more cut off our hand than we would stop sharing meals with our friends and relatives. Jesus, of course, is making a point. And what is that point?
Jesus says, “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.” Jesus says invite the poor, because they cannot repay you.
Earlier in this Gospel Jesus says, according to Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s important to understand that in this beatitude Jesus is not saying it’s a good thing to be poor, nor is Jesus suggesting that being poor meets some meritorious condition for living in the kingdom of God. It is unfortunate that we tend to read Luke’s, “Blessed are you who are poor” in light of Matthew’s version which reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We tend to read Luke in light of Matthew as if being poor in spirit is a good thing. I have read it that way myself, but I am now convinced sisters and brothers that I have been reading into it what is not there. To be poor in spirit is basically to be crushed in spirit. Of course, one can be crushed in spirit without actually being economically poor, but how often are the economically poor crushed in spirit. Poverty is crippling. And of course, the lame and crippled are mentioned along with the poor because so often the poor are the ones who end up crippled in other ways as well - physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
When Jesus says that the poor are blessed he is not saying that the poor have an advantage. For some reason I used to think that. They are clearly disadvantaged, and this is why they are blessed. This is why Jesus gives them special attention. It’s not because there is merit in being poor; just the opposite. It’s because they face such hardships and challenges and are often victims of systemic injustice that they are given special attention and focus from Jesus. Of all people the poor need friends and advocates and allies who will stand with them and for them, because they so often are made to feel as if they are the reproach of society.
In a June article in the New York Times by op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof, Kristof noted that the US has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons in recent years in effect making it a crime to be poor. He points out that impoverished defendants have nothing to give and that the system disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, leaving them with an overhang of debt which is crippling and crushing.
He offers Amanda Goleman, age 29, as an example. She grew up in a meth house and began taking illegal drugs at age 12. Her education came to a halt in the ninth grade when she became pregnant. For a time, she and her daughter were homeless. But now Goleman has turned herself around. She has had no offenses for almost four years and has been drug-free for three. She has held a steady job and even been promoted, but she is a single mom and struggles to pay old fines while raising her three children, ages 2, 10, and 13. Goleman says, “It’s either feed my kids or pay the fines, but if I don’t pay then I get a warrant.” Four times she has been arrested and jailed for a few days for being behind in her payments; each time, this created havoc with her children and posed challenges for keeping a job. This is how our society punishes and stigmatizes the poor. Will a secular society care for the poor? Listen to all our politicians running for office. It’s always about the middle-class, but never about the poor.
This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” This is why Jesus tells us to host parties for the poor. This is why Jesus says invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Because God loves them and cares about them. They are as loved by God as any one of us. And because they have special issues and needs and because they are so often demeaned and diminished and beaten down by society, they have a special place in God’s heart. They are especially endeared to God and those who share the heart and passion of God.
We all know how poverty can be and often is a self-perpetuating cycle. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that the factors contributing to this are often very complex. We will never sort it all out, but we should know that the system is rigged against them, making it that much harder to break free. It is not our place to judge. It is our place to care – to do what we can. It is our place to be their advocates. It is our place to encourage and empower. It is our place to care, because God cares so much. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Jesus says, “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to feast at the table. They are our sisters and brothers. We share the same Divine Father and Mother, the same Holy Spirit, the same connection to the Divine Reality who is the source of all life. We are at one with them. They are family. God doesn’t call them failures. God calls them daughters and sons.
So sisters and brothers, what do we call them? Do we share the heart and passion of God? Do we stand with Jesus or against Jesus? If we stand against the poor, we stand against Jesus. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus. Invite the poor, says Jesus. For such are the ways of God’s upside-down, inside-out kingdom.
Our good God, create in us a desire to know and share your passion for those who are the most vulnerable and who face a distinct disadvantage. Fill our hearts with your compassion. Keep us from judgment. And help us to discern and reject the critical attitudes and prejudices and animosity that is often directed toward the disadvantaged by people in power and society in general. Raise up kind, generous, just, and compassionate officials, judges, police officers, business leaders, and others in power to help bring mercy and justice into a system that favors money, power, and position. Help us to be authentic followers of Jesus. Amen.