A Gift is A Gift (Full Stop.)

Sermon on Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Psalm 81:1-3 Sing with joy to God our strength and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob. Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.

Introduction

A gift is a gift. (Full Stop.) One of the hardest “learning journeys” I’ve been on is: a gift is a gift. No “ands”, “ifs”, or “buts”. A gift—to be a gift—must have no strings attached. When a gift is given, it’s only a gift if it’s completely free of any return action. The gift-giver gives and the gift-receiver receives. This includes (and is not limited) the expectation of … thank you notes.

I know, I know I’m flaunting our social customs and etiquettes—and I promise you I do write thank you notes (as often as I remember!)—but the reality is: a gift is only a gift if it is free from the giver to the receiver. Now, is it nice to receive something in return? Yes! It’s great to hear a “Thank you!” or “That made my day!” or even to receive a gift in return at a later date. But what I’m addressing here is the expectation of exchange we place on our “gifts” to each other and (even) to ourselves. Who here hasn’t said the words, when faced with an item of luxury or a restful moment or a good book or a dinner out: I’ve earned it. We can’t even give ourselves gifts without having an exchange rate attached to it. But what if you just gave yourself a much needed darned gift? Just ‘cuz.

In our society, we have a social expectation that gifts given will be met with some return: a handwritten letter of gratitude, a reciprocal gift of equal value, a return invite (etc.). While I’m aware these deeds create civility and value human efforts, they become not-gifts if there’s an expectation that such mutuality of exchange will happen.

If I give you a gift and you freely write me a note of gratitude, that’s great! ß This is not what I’m talking about. In this equation both parties are offering something to each other voluntarily (ideally).

If I give you a gift and then wait for you to write me a thank you note, stewing as time goes on because well, it’s been 5 days and there’s no acknowledgment of this wonderful thing I’ve given and then the next time I see you I’m a bit passive aggressive about everything because, well, you never said thank you and how rude and inconsiderate to treat my gift in such a way… ß this is what I’m addressing. Do you see how my gift becomes a burden? As soon as that happens, it’s no longer a gift; it’s a burden. It’s a burden to both people.

A gift to someone should participate in their liberation and not add to their captivity. A gift is a gift. (Full Stop.)

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Now he was saying to the one who has invited him, “Whenever you make a midday meal or supper, do not summon your friends, and not your brothers and not your relatives and not a wealthy neighbor, lest at any time they also may invite you in turn and it might become for you recompense. But, whenever you make a banquet, call the poor, maimed, limping, and blind. And you will be blessed because they are not able to give back as an equivalent to you. For, it will be given back to you in the resurrection of the righteous.”[1]

Luke 14:12-14

Luke tells us Jesus is at the house of a prominent pharisee, breaking bread. Luke explains they were “observing him scrupulously” (παρατηρούμενοι[2]). But, jokes on them.[3] In v. 7, Jesus is paying heed (ἐπέχων[4]) to their behavior. (Tables turned.) What was he watching? Their vying for the best seat at the table with the most honor. These people weren’t being “selfish”, per se. They were just behaving according to custom and etiquette. Seats around a table carried significance in Jesus’s honor/shame culture. (We have our own; thus, we can relate.) Where one reclined indicated honor and status: closest to the host the most honor. As seats descended down the table from the host, honor and status declined. So, invitees to banquets vied for the first spot. They had to; their livelihood depended on it.[5]

According to Luke, Jesus tells a parable explaining that it’s better to take the lowest seat so that the host would come get you and bring you the honor you are seeking. For this would be better than the other way around, right guys? It seems as if Jesus is helping the status-quo here, but wait. Or, is Jesus saying something else? Considering Jesus is God incarnate, and considering it’s a parable, there’s a bigger lesson at hand. Jesus intends to draw attention to something bigger than his culture’s honor/shame components:[6] …all who exalt themselves will be made low, and the one who makes themselves low will be exalted. Humility[7] is honorable, and not self-aggrandizement. [8] Thus, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. [9] This is the way of the Kingdom of God; this is the way of God.

Claiming honor for oneself doesn’t mean one has honor. It’s basic intellectual math, but it’s an equation we keep swearing by over and over and over. Act this way, do this, get this thing, have this attribute, etc., and you will get honor. But Jesus is turning the tables. Assume you are lower than you are and let others bring you honor; do not claim it for yourself.[10] He emphasizes this by further flipping social expectations as it pertains to one’s invite list to supper. [11] It was accepted and understood that a banquet host invited his family, friends, those of equal social standing, and maybe even that neighbor who boosts your social standings.[12] Yet, Jesus—with an eye to dismantle social and religious custom and convention—says: invite the poor, maimed, limping, and blind. In other words, invite people who mar your reputation in the community and make you religiously unclean; the “worst” of the “worst”. [13]

And why does Jesus say this? Because a gift is a gift. (Full stop.) If you invite those who are of your or greater status, then you will receive the customary return invite. You’re inviting people so that they’ll return the gesture with an invitation (in kind). This exchange of equal or (slightly) greater value bolsters your own image in society. It’s exploitation;[14] this isn’t a gift because there are strings attached (big ones!).[15] So, Jesus calls it out and commands the people (imperatives!) to break with this tradition and do what God does: give (freely!) to and dwell with the socially and religious unlovely and unclean;[16] the very people of God because God is with them.[17] In this way, Jesus says, you will be blessed[18] and righteousness will be yours[19]because you’ll be with God, and those who are with God are the blessed and the righteous ones.

Conclusion

I don’t have words big enough to describe the way God loves us, but I do have Luke’s story of a banquet comprised of all those who are cast out (religiously and socially). There, at that party, God dwells. God gives God’s self in grand and glorious ways—not in empty and self-serving ways, but ways benefiting the one who receives this divine gift of divine presence. God’s gift of God’s self in Christ Jesus liberates the person who is encountered and anchored in the liberative love of God. And all of it just cuz, just because God loves you so very, very, very much. And the most amazing part? There’re no strings attached. God doesn’t give God’s self so that you will respond; God just gives God’s self. (Full Stop.) That’s why you respond. God gives God’s self to you freely because God desires to be in solidarity with you, to liberate you, to celebrate you.  

And if with us, thus us with others. Beloved, we give because we want to, because we want to be in solidarity with what is going on around us, to alleviate the pain of others, to bring freedom, to participate in God’s grace and love in the world. With one another, beloved, we share what we have…not what we have in excess (charity) but what we have even if it’s our last cup of flour and last tablespoon of oil, with each other we will break bread even if, no…especially when the other has nothing to bring to the table.

May our table, our seats, our sanctuary reflect the depth of divine solidarity with those who cannot repay, with those who may not even be able to say thank you. May we freely give as God has so freely given to us.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Present middle participle masculine nominative plural; first principal part παρατηρέω. With the imperfect tense of εἰμί (imperfect active indicative third person plural), the construction is a periphrastic and carries a finite imperfect equivalent: they were observing him scrupulously. In that moment, they invited him closed and (literally) were watching everything he did.

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, 551. “Luke’s opening depiction of Jesus is almost comical. The pharisees and scribes of this dinner party had been watching him closely v 1), but now they are the ones being monitored; what is more, whereas in being monitored; their attempts to unmask Jesus as one who transgresses the law they had been reduced to silence, he now exposes their impropriety.”

[4] present active participle masculine nominative singular. Jesus, here, is doing the action of “paying heed”. And being linked to the activity of the parable he’s about to drop, what he’s paying heed to will be the subject of the parable. Now he was saying a parable to the one who have been invited, paying heed to…

[5] Green, Luke, 550. “First, this was a world in which social status and social stratification were vital considerations in the structuring of life, with one’s status based on the social estimation of one’s relative honor – that is, on the perception of those around a person regarding his prestige. For example, where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society. one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more. because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”

[6] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 179-180. “The first of these is addressed primarily to his fellow guests, whom he has seen vying for the places of honor. At a superficial level, Jesus seems to be simply criticizing them and suggesting the wiser course of acting humbly and taking the places; lesser honor, so that the host will give them a better place… But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension reverses the present human order…”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 351. “I: ’If everyone has a spirit of service to the others, there aren’t any firsts or lasts and you reach the equality that Felipe is talking about.’”

[8] Green, Luke, 552. “On the one hand, his teaching has called into question the elf-seeking agenda of the companions, insisting that honor must be given, not pursued or taken. More fundamentally, however, he now goes on to hint at a life-world in which honor is measured and granted along unforeseen lines. “The humble.” in the social world Luke addresses, usually denoted persons who are of low birth, base, and ignoble, yet in the topsy-turvy world Jesus envisages, ‘the humble’ are those most valued.”

[9] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 351. “LAUREANO: ‘It’s the same as that other thing that Jesus said, when they asked him who was the most important, and he said the one who served. The one in the first place isn’t most important.’”

[10] Green, Luke, 551. “First, he appeals to the realities of an honor-shame culture in order to advise against taking the ‘first seats.’ Then he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, to have your honor bestowed on you by another than to make a bid for honor that might not be granted. Luke envisions the impartation of honor in the form of a new, more lofty, seat assignment, but also in the use of the term ‘friend,’ signifying a relationship (again, not claimed by the guest but conferred by the host) of equality and mutuality with the host.”

[11] Cardenal, Solentiname, 352. “I: ‘And that is the subversion of the kingdom of heaven. ‘Subvert’ comes from the Latin subvertere, which means to put down what IS up and up what is down.’”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “What Jesus now says and proposes is a contrary to all rules of etiquette Then as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues. Since having a distinguished guest at dinner results in honor and prestige for the host, one seeks to invite such people—in Luke’s text, ‘rich neighbors.’ When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us, this would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “After listing four main categories of people who are usually invited to such dinners—friends, brothers, relatives, rich neighbors—Jesus suggests four other categories-the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention. In today’s vocabulary, one could say that Jesus is telling his host to invite not the worthy, nor even the ‘worthy poor,’ but the unworthy, irreligious, sinful poor.”

[14] Green, Luke, 552-553. “Because invitations served as currency in the marketplace of prestige and power, there is nothing extraordinary or particularly objectionable to the inclusion of one’s social peers and family, persons from whom one could expect reciprocation. This is true, at least for those willing to work within the established world system Seen through Jesus’ eyes, however, orthodox conventions have as their consequence the exclusion of the poor; after all. for the social elite the poor are unhelpful in the business of parading and advancing one’s social position and, perhaps more importantly in the current co-text, the poor could not reciprocate. The Pharisees are thus portrayed as persons who exploit hospitality for self-serving agenda, and whose patterns of hospitality both secure their positions of dominance in their communities and insulate them from the needy.”

[15] Green, Luke, 550. “Second, central to the political stability of the Empire was the ethics of reciprocity, a gift-and-obligation system that tied every person, from the emperor in Rome to the child in the most distance province, into an intricate web of social relations. Apart from certain relations within the family unit and discussions of ideal friendship, gifts, by unwritten definition, were never ‘free,’ but were given and received with either explicit or implicit strings attached, Expectations of reciprocity were naturally extended to the table: To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation.”

[16] Cardenal, Solentiname, 354. “I: ‘Jesus advises them to break with their families, with their circle of rich people, with their class. And the fact that they invite the poor to the party means that the poor stop being poor, and that in society everything is shared equally: health, clothing, culture. Because a party with crippled, sick, ignorant people isn’t a very good party.’”

[17] Green, Luke, 553. “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ – notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world-as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”

[18] Green, Luke, 553-554. “According to Jesus, the state of blessedness resides in the fact that one has given without expectation (or hope!) of return. It is true that, according to v 14b, blessedness will take the eschatological form of divine ‘repayment,’ but Jesus does not advise people to engage in guileless generosity in order that one might receive divine benefaction. Luke has already established that human generosity flows from an appreciation of the expansive mercy of God (6:36); to this he now adds that genuine, uncalculating generosity toward those of low status will not go unrewarded.”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 356. “I: ‘…. Justice is social justice and liberation; the unjust one is the oppressor, and the just one is the liberator. God is absolute justice; and his main attribute is that of the Just One: The one who punishes injustice, and the one who comes to the oppressed and listens to the cries of the poor, and the one who liberates. And the just are the ones who have struggled for the establishment of justice on earth. They are going to be resurrected, according to Jesus, and they are the ones who have given the party they’re talking about here, the sharing of joy and abundance in the world …. In the Bible, God is love, understanding love to be social justice, and to be joined to this love is to be alive forever. Jesus has begun by saying: When they invite you to a wedding party.’ And it’s because this great party of humanity of which we’ve talked will celebrate a wedding party with Love.’” And, Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “The reason not to invite those who are worthy is that they will probably repay you, and in that case all you have achieved is some social interchange. The reason to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the final day, “at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

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