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.’”

Two Tiny (nearly) Weightless Coins

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Psalm 146:1-3 Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil. It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; vain, too, to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Introduction

I spent the week thinking about how exhausted and isolated and sad many of us feel. If it means anything, I feel it…in my bones. This pandemic seems endless as we cruise into wrapping up year two. It’s still wreaking havoc on our world, on our country, on our state, on our county, on our families and friends, and on our own bodies (heart, mind, soul). On top of that the political divisions and consistent social unrest feeling like threats of WWIII—this thanksgiving and Christmas we can gather with extended family…or can we? (It might be safest yet to speak of only religion at those tables!) And let us extend our view to our larger society: as crises continue to rise, our brothers and sisters struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, to exist in the world. I want my kids to go freely to school and their myriad activities without having this extra weight on their shoulders. I want you, the people of God entrusted to my care, to live your fullest lives infecting others with the holy and divine love of God…not a potential life-threatening virus. Truly, the psalm I just prayed echoes through my exhausted body eager to rest, to just exist, to just live…in person…with others, without threat, without fear, without hyper-vigilance, without divisive divisions.

So, this week, maybe even more than last week, I believe we need love amid our sadness, our isolation, our exhaustion, our fear, our sicknesses; we need to marinate in the divine love of God. We need to keep this divine love we receive as the focal point of our days-in and days-out. Love is active as I said last week. And that’s true, it is; love’s language is always action…in some form.

The thing is…it doesn’t have to be grandiose and massive, as if to catch everyone’s attention. It can be small. Simple. That’s the thing about love’s language as action: the full extent of love is there even in the smallest seemingly most simple thing…Like two tiny, weightless coins slipping unnoticed into the treasury.

Mark 12:38-44 

And then after sitting down in front of the treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd cast copper/bronze into the treasury. And then many wealthy people were casting [in] great things; and then came one destitute widow, and she cast [in] two very small pieces of money, which is ¼ of a Roman monetary unit. And then calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this destitute widow cast in a much greater value of all those who are casting into the treasury. For all people gave from their overflow/left-over, but from her need/want of all she had, she cast [in] her whole/complete life.”[1]

Mark 12:41-44

Moving forward in Chapter 12, Mark tells us that Jesus (generally and polemically[2]) drags the bulk of the scribes—excepting, I’m sure, the one who is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). It seems scribes had some reputation, according to Mark, for liking the finer things in life and the power coming with their prestigious position in the community. They desired[3] to strut about in their long and fancy robes,[4] greeting[5] each other in the public places, sitting in the most honorable—”the chief most”—seats in the synagogue and at the banquet table of the evening meals.[6] It brought them pleasure to do these things (ἔρος). However, Jesus goes on: it’s not just that they like the finer things in life—the things afforded to them due to their role and privilege in their society—but that they did it at the expense of the disenfranchised, the ones who consume the house of widows…(ἔρος run amok). A scribe couldn’t claim ignorance to how much God detested “defrauding” widows; it was woven through the scriptures.[7] Thus, the end for these scribes is, according to Jesus, a much greater divine condemnation.[8] They know better. Shema O Israel!

And then Jesus sits down in front of the treasury in the Court of the Women[9]—the nearest point of the temple building open to women.[10] Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes comes with divine force; so, too, does his sitting down in front of the treasury—like a judge. Many people came and cast their offerings into the treasury: clinks and clanks of copper and bronze, of gold and silver coins[11] echoed as they hit the trumpet chests; fiscal support for the work of the temple.[12] The bigger and more substantial the offering, the bigger and louder the sound and spectacle.

But then a destitute widow comes in. A “little-one” (Mk. 9:42) comes in—whose bodily presence would go unnoticed by the crowd, as well as her meager offering of two small copper coins smaller than a centimeter in diameter and worth less than 1/100 of a denarius.[13] On any other day, these two small coins would slip into the treasury without garnering attention and respect, just as she would slip into the temple with the same response. But this day was like no other day. God saw. And God loved.

God sat opposite the treasury and saw this humble human give her whole life[14] to God.[15] Her faith—her love for God—sounded louder than any other gift dropped into the treasury at that moment as she dropped her whole life into that treasury. She gave not from an overflow of excess, but from her need, from her want, from all she had. This is not a treatise on tithing or a rebuke of the wealthy;[16] this is a declaration of love. It’s this destitute widow who hears and loves God with her whole heart, whole mind, whole soul, and whole strength; she—not the fancy-pants, privileged scribes or the wealthy giving from their extra—she is the one who satisfies the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as themselves (cf. Mk 12:28-34). Where the scribes have succumbed to negligent ἔρος in consuming the livelihood of widows, she, a destitute widow, is consumed with ἀγάπη. Her small, miniscule offering was born out of big, massive love. Because love’s language is always action, even if it’s as small as two tiny, nearly weightless coins slipping unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!

Conclusion

Our isolation, our exhaustion, our sadness isn’t going to magically disappear any time soon. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. We are here, and here we’ll be until we are no longer stuck in this atmosphere and environment of virus and anger. But I am not hopeless. Why? Because…love. Infinite Love in its most finite form keeps popping up. A note. A smile. A gift. A hand to help. A meal. A hello. A moment. A kindness. A presence. A giggle. A brief connection. A look of knowing. These are the small things our community is dependent on right now. While our bodies are forced into distances and our persons experience continued isolation, our love and our hope doesn’t have to. We can overcome the distance and separation in new ways, in abstract ways, in small ways.

As we give into what is demanded of us right now, we need not lose hope. Hopefulness gives way to hopelessness when we keep our eyes fixed on what was and we keep trying to rebuild what was. Rather hopefulness is born of love in this very moment, right here and right now, in what is. Accepting the strain and drain, the exhaustion and isolation, even the grief and sadness isn’t succumbing to the forces of evil and giving up unto nothing; it’s the very opposite. For in that weakness of accepting point-blank what is as it is, is the source of the strength of humanity in God, of God in humanity. Embracing now, allows us to unleash the determined, the dogged, the tenacious, the carpe diem and live new, exist new, connect new, to love new—not in big and grand ways, we don’t have the energy for that or the stamina; but we can love new in small and simple ways, in sustainable ways.

Like Jesus asks his disciples to reexamine what it means to give, what it means to love, what it means to lead, what it means to be a disciple, we, too, must hear these questions addressed to us. We must reexamine what it means to love right now as those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. We must reexamine what it looks like to love God and to love others right now. Because it might just look like slipping two tiny, nearly weightless coins unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] France Mark 489. “In this context the effect is to offer the crowd a choice as to the sort of leader they will follow, and Jesus pulls no punches in exposing the shortcomings of scribes in general. How far this constitutes a valid and ‘objective’ assessment of first-century scribes may be debated; certainly 12:28-34 with Jesus’ recognition of some tenets of scribal teaching (9:11-13; 12:35) points in another direction. But this is polemics in the context of a highly charged and potentially fatal confrontation, and a suitably broad brush is applied.”

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 490. “θέλω, often a rather colourless word, here has a strong meaning (BAGD, 355b, 4.a, ‘take pleasure in’): these are the ambitions of the scribes.”

[4] France Mark 490 “A στολή is not an everyday garment, but a festive or celebratory robe (cf. Lk. 15:22; Rev. 6:11; 7:9) and suggests ‘dressing up’.”

[5] France Mark 490. “Deferential ἀσπασμοί are a mark of social standing (Mt. 23:7-12 expands the point).”

[6] France Mark 490-491.”For the social significance of the front seats in the synagogue (i.e., those in front of the ark, facing the congregation) cf. the comments of Jas. 2:2-4 concerning the Christian συναγωγῆ, and for the best couch at a dinner cf. Lk. 14:7- 10; see Josephus, Ant, 15.21 for flattery by means of the best seats and greetings. Cf. Jn. 13:1-17 for a graphic repudiation of a similar preoccupation with status and reputation among Jesus’ own disciples.”

[7] France Mark 491. “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”

[8] France Mark 492. “Similarly, while κρίμα sometimes means the act of judging, its normal meaning of ‘condemnation’, ‘punishment’ is demanded by the context here. The reference cannot be to an earthly or human judgment (which would hardly take cognizance of ostentation as a punishable offence), but must be to God’s eschatological judgment, of which Jesus has spoken so vividly in 9:42-48.”

[9] France Mark 492. γαζοφθλάκιον “Its reference here to the collecting chests in the Court of the Women is demanded by the context, which has an ὄχλος including a woman, ‘throwing in’ donations.”

[10] France Mark 489. “The scene is in the Court of the Women, so-called not because it was specifically for women but because it was the nearest point to the temple building proper which was open to women. Here stood a range of thirteen ‘trumpet chests’ (m. Seq. 2:1; 6:5; so-called presumably from their shape) designed to receive monetary offerings, including not only the half-shekel temple tax but also ‘freewill offerings’. The half-shekel was obligatory for men, but any contribution to the other chests was voluntary, and would be noticed by anyone who, like Jesus and his disciples, was watching…Perhaps it was a recognized tourist attraction.”

[11] France Mark 492. “χαλκός is strictly ‘copper’ or ‘bronze’, and the widow’s two coins would be of copper. But the large sums donated by the rich would presumably in silver or gold coins (as were the half-shekels for the temple tax, which had the sense of ‘money’.”

[12] France Mark 493. “All contributions were therefore for the work of the temple; charitable donations for the poor were made separately.”

[13] France Mark 493. “There is no reason to think that she was the only such person present, but Jesus singles her out as an object lesson. The λεπτόν (Hebrew peruta) was the smallest denomination of currency in use, a copper coin less than a centimetre in diameter and worth less than one hundredth of a denarius (which was itself half the value of the half-shekel temple tax). Mark identifies its value by reference to the Roman κοδρἀντης; (a transliteration of quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin, a quarter of an as).”

[14] France Mark 493. “The point is laboured in the wording of v. 44: her ὑστέρησις (destitution) is compared with their περίσσευον, the spare change which will never be missed…she has given πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν (cf. the example of the disciples, 10:28, and the failure of the rich man to do likewise, 10:21); it is ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς, and yet she voluntarily gave both coins, rather than just one! While Jesus was not averse to exaggeration to make a point, it is quite possible that in first-century Palestine the donation of two perutot would have left a poor widow without the means for her next meal (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Ki. 17:12).”

[15] Working from the literal translation of: ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς. ὅλος (whole, complete, entire) is also the word used in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe about the foremost commandment in Mark 12:28-34. I’m working with the idea that this story follows to exemplify what it looks like to love God with the entirety of one’s self and love your neighbor as yourself.

[16] France Mark 489-490. “Jesus’ comment on the widow’s offering is not an attack on wealth or the wealthy as such, but rather on the scale of values which takes more account of the amount of a gift than of the dedication of the giver. It develops further the new perspective of the kingdom of God which Jesus has been so assiduously teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem…But this private teaching agrees closely with the tenor of his public rebuke of the scribes, whose desire for public honour typifies the superficial values of conventional society.”

Table (Etiquette) Turned

Luke 14:1,7-14 (Sermon)

Introduction

I don’t talk about this fact of my life often, but I was raised in a wealthy environment. In the world of the elite and the privileged, I am comfortable. Among hunt clubs, country clubs, cotillion, and the weekend house in Vermont, I was raised and trained to be skilled for any social situation. I understand not only the demands and pressures of this type of life, but also the demand for right social etiquette. So, whenever Jesus is addressing the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful, I feel the weight of his exhortations. Jesus’s words hit too close to home. I prefer it when Jesus speaks of another group of people, one that I’m not associated with through birth and upbringing. But, alas, here we are in Luke 14 with the elite and their etiquette being called out, and I’m guilty. My number’s been pulled (again), and I have no choice but to listen to the voice of my Lord and my savior.

1, 7-10

At a dinner party, Jesus engages the guests with a story about what to do when invited to a dinner. Don’t take the foremost seat, Jesus says. Take the lower seat and allow yourself to be invited to the position of honor. Here’s the reason: you’ll avoid the shame[1] of being asked to move to take possession of the last place[2]. While avoiding risk, you may also incur reward: you’ll receive the glory[3] being asked to move to the more honorable place.[4] Finally, this makes sense to us. Isn’t Jesus’s reasoning in vv. 7-10 logical? Sit lower at the table to avoid being embarrassed by being asked to move. And maybe, you’ll even gain some pleasure in being called friend and given the place of honor! [5] This is win/win. Right? This is etiquette Emily Post can get behind!

Or is it?

v.11 [Because] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Verse 11 is the right-hook of right-hooks in this passage. We should’ve known better than to trust that Jesus and Luke were finally on our side. While at first glance v. 11 looks to be the tl:dr of the previous discussion about choosing your seat at the next wedding banquet you attend, it’s anything but. To seize the place of honor with hopes it would not be taken away would validate one’s elite position in society.[6] But, like the healing of the bent woman on the Sabbath in chapter 13, Jesus challenges our allegiance to laws and rules. He’s saying: do not vie for the top seat; forgo that affirmation. Sit, Jesus says, sit for all to see in the last seat; let honor be given to you and do not seize it for yourself.[7]

Receive honor; not take it. Let it be placed in the hand. But what if we don’t get the honor we think we deserve? Could you imagine being so empty handed, waiting for your host to call you forth, giving you the place of honor, the place you swore was rightfully yours? Could you watch as someone else was given that seat? Could you admit maybe you didn’t deserve it?

Humility is not about relinquishing your personhood and self; it’s not about stripping the self of dignity and humanity. Rather, humility is the art of being in the fullness of your embodied self, and intentionally stepping aside, saying, “No…you.” It’s the voluntary full-self self-sacrifice bringing life to others where there should’ve been death. It’s the moment where you shrug off what’s rightfully yours, to identify with those significantly below your status. This is the level of humility that is the call on every disciple who follows Christ.[8]

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)

vv.12-14

Apart from the exhortation to follow after Christ, taking the lesser station over and against the higher station you believe you deserve, there’s a deeper eschatological[9] (last) aspect at play. This “last” (eschatological) aspect incorporates the view to a new order inaugurated by the advent of the Christ into the world. [10] In the most beautiful of all divine subterfuge, Jesus steals the position of host[11] and offers his host (now guest) a lesson about the true table etiquette of heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus explains: do not invite those people who’ll bolster your status in society (friends, brothers, relatives, and wealthy neighbors[12]), who can repay the invite. Rather, invite those who are not worthy according to society’s standard. According to Jesus, it’s about using what you have to bless those who have not and (precisely because they) cannot repay you for your hospitality. [13] Those who are beggarly and cowering over, the maimed, and the blind[14] are the unworthy of society and thus the most worthy in the economy of the reign of God. [15] Standard social and religious conventions are met (once again) with divine the sentence in Christ: XXX. [16]

Inviting those who are from the fringe of society, the “unclean/untouchables,” would be death to one’s social status, according to the system of the day. And yet it is precisely these that Jesus exhorts his hearers to invite to their banquettes—even if the invitation is wasted, and the one invited cannot reciprocate. [17] Both the rich and the poor knew the system; thus this command form Jesus, this exhortation, puts both the rich and the poor into one bind: risk your pride. The etiquette of the kingdom of humanity collapses under the weight of Jesus’s inaugurated new order of the reign of God .[18]

It’s hard to receive a gift you haven’t earned and can’t repay. It is hard to give a gift without expectation of gratitude in the form of repayment. Jesus folds these extremes in and makes them meet at one point: the reign of God. The war is waged not with human beings but on behalf of them; not with creation, but on behalf of it. The war Jesus leads is against those forces that keep division and placing intact to keep people from people; those forces of sin and death that keep the rich from the poor and poor from the rich.

There’s no way around it, according to Jesus, we’re to engage and give to those who cannot repay in kind; this is “blessed.” Those who receive and cannot repay and those who give without expecting repayment: they are the blessed. These who are first are last and these last are first.

The reign of God comes to fruition in this meager and simple act. It’s not grand and abundant sacrifice; it is an invitation to dinner. Jesus rewrites the symphonic tones of what it means to be in communion; the orchestra plays and the band responds; each gives as needed and takes as is given. And community, real, true community abounds. The kind of community that is marked by the characteristic of divine love that causes heads to turn: those are Christians.

Conclusion

As a priest called by God to tend the flock, I now set for and serve you from the table of the banquette of the wilderness; a humble table set for one (one cup, one plate) that is for all people. Bread placed in the diversity of hands having done everything to those that have yet to do a thing—the bread of heaven knows no distinctions. I get to participate in the event of baptism ushering you in to this whacky and absurd reign of God that turns everything upside; I get to wash you and welcome you. In short, I get the opportunity to serve you, invite you to the table and to the water, tend to your cares and concerns, remind you that God is good and that you are the beloved.

The last one into the Jordan was the first one out; it is he who is the first to embrace a death he didn’t deserve to be called to the place of honor. It is he who arrives at the banquette table in the wilderness of the new heavens and the new earth to make room for us, the very last. And we come, anxious, limping, hunched over, exhausted, with nothing to offer but our deep gratitude for the free gift of life that we could never ever repay. You are the beloved. God is good.

 

 

[1] From the Greek text..και ελθων ο σε και αθτον καλεσας ερει σοι «δος τουτω τοπον,» και τοτε αρξε μετα αισχθνης τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν.

[2] From the Greek text see the second half of fn 1 (τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν)

[3] From the Greek text “φιλε, προσαναβηθι ανωτερον; τοτε εσται σοι δοξα ενωπιον παντων των σθνανακειμενων σοι.

[4] From the Greek text

[5] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). 551, “…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, that might not be granted.”

[6] Green 550, “…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 arrangements 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.”

[7] Green 552, “The aphorism of v 11, then, must first be read as an indication of what God values, of what is most highly valued in the kingdom of God, and of the basis on which judgment will be enacted. …those whose dispositions have been transformed to reflect the divine economy, v 11 can be read as moral guidance, reflected in behavior advised in vv. 8-10; read in this way, Jesus’ “parable” is not designed to provide one with a new strategy by which one might obtain the commendation of one’s peers. Instead, it insists that the only commendation one needs comes from the God who is unimpressed with such social credentials as govern social relations in Luke’s world…”

[8] Green 542-3, “Relative to his table companions in 14:1-24, Jesus has a distinctive view of the world, shaped fundamentally by his experience of the Spirit, his understanding of the merciful God, and his awareness of the presence of God’s redemptive project, the kingdom of God, in his ministry. Within this immediate co-text, Jesus’ version of dining etiquette, shaped fundamentally by these preunderstandings and dispositions, comes to expression as a warning and invitation to his companions at the table, Pharisees and scribes. Within its larger co-text in the Third Gospel, however, the reach of Jesus’ message is more inclusive, calling for an embodiment of the kingdom of God in the social practices of Pharisees and legal experts, yes, but also in the behavior of his followers and the people as a whole.”

[9] A potential play on words here considering that the word Luke puts in Jesus’s mouth to describe the last spot is “εσχατον” to speak of the “last place” at the table.

[10] Justo Gonzalez Luke “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible” Louisville, KY: WJK 2010 180, “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 of the final judgment and the new order of the kingdom, which reverses the present human order: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

[11] Gonzalez 179

[12] From the Greek text “…μη φωνει τους φιλους σου μηδε τους αδελφους σου μεηδε τους συγγεωεις σου μηδε γειτονας πλουσιους…”

[13] Gonzalez 180, “The reason 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 day, at the resurrection of the righteous.”

[14] From the Greek text: πτωχους, αναπειρους, χωλους, τυφλπυς

[15] Green 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.”

[16] Gonzalez 180, “What Jesus now says and proposes is 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…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. While we might consider this an advantage, or at least the normal order of things. Jesus proposes inviting those who cannot repay…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.”

[17] Green 550, “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. The powerful and privileged would not ordinarily think to invite the poor to their meals, for this would (1) possibly endanger the social status of the host; (2) be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated; and (3) ensue in embarrassment for the poor, who could not reciprocate and, therefore, would be required by social protocols to decline the invitation.”

[18] Green 553, “The behaviors Jesus demands would collapse the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider; reverting to anthropological models of economic exchange, such relations would be characterized by ‘generalized reciprocity’—that is, by the giving of gifts, the extension of hospitality, without expectation of return…”

The Free Gift

Every semester in seminary there would be this one moment in the middle of the semester where all of my classes would collide on one theological or biblical concept; different teachers teaching different classes, yet the trajectory of the lectures landed each professor and each class here at this specific point. Divine. I loved it when it happened, pure joy all the way down. While I’m no longer in seminary and moving along a sizeable course load, I still get that sense of joy when books I’m reading overlap, when the fiction book I’m reading provides the picture for the theological concept I’m reading about in my theology book. Today, such a wonderful event happened: reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just a bit ago, I was given a wonderful little scene that put images to words that I had read in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians yesterday evening.

Luther:

I am not speaking at such great length without reason. It seems to be exceedingly inadequate to say that the Holy Spirit is granted solely through hearing with faith and that nothing at all is demanded of us but that we refrain from all our works and just listen to the Gospel. The human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize as the Holy Spirit can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but it thinks this way: ‘The forgiveness of sins, deliverance from sin and death, the granting of the Holy Spirit, of righteousness and of eternal life–this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts.’ The devil approves of this opinion and magnifies it in the heart. Therefore when reason hears: ‘You cannot do anything to obtain the forgiveness of sins except only to listen to the Word of God, it immediately exclaims: ‘Oh no! You are making the forgiveness of sins too meager and contemptible!’ Thus the greatness of the gift is responsible for our not accepting it. Because such a great treasure is being offered freely, it is despised Luther Lectures on Galatians 3:2 (213)

And Dostoevsky:

‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’ Raskolnikov went on, suddenly frowning and looking down. ‘Setting aside the question of payment–forgive me for referring to it’ (he turned to Zossimov) ‘–I really don’t know what I have done to deserve such special attention from you! I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it. I tell you so candidly’ (Raskolnikov to Zossimov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (195))

I think there’s an assumption that if something is done for someone else freely, in charity, that that free gift will not only be taken advantage of (along with the giver) but that it naturally perpetuates a taking-for-granted cycle. While maybe sometimes the case, I’m not sold that it’s always the case. There’s no part of Raskolnikov (here) where he’s taking the posture of taking for granted medical care that has come to him in a great time of need and freely at that. He’s done absolutely nothing to deserve or to earn such treatment. So Zossimov’s treatment given as a true gift, freely, breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason; it just doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make sense it weighs upon him. “‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’… I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it” isn’t the language of someone who is taking something for granted even though it was something freely given.

A gift freely given is a confusing thing. And the larger the free gift the harder it is to understand.

As the free medical care from Zossimov breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason, causing him to be both confused and weighed down, so it is with us and the free gift that is given to us by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are given deliverance from sin, justification, righteousness, life of very life, and God himself. All of this is given to us all by faith in Christ alone and none of it by anything we have to offer or what we bring to the table, and beyond any we attempt we could make to earn it, and this breaks from reason and weighs heavy upon us. To refer to Luther’s words, we want to despise the free gift; it’s offensive to us on so many levels.

But here is one of those moments where the Law and Gospel, death and life, collide at one point: the free gift (the very beautiful free gift) reveals that something is wrong, that we are not well, and that in fact we are near death (or dead in our trespasses). It’s a light in the darkness that exposes the situation for what it is: dire. But then it’s also the free gift that’s freely given that makes well, heals, and brings into existence a new life, a new creation; as it exposes it is given. And as we are exposed by the free gift we also receive this inestimable gift of God himself through faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith. (Luther, Lecture on Galatians 3:2 (214))

And what miraculously flows forth from our hearts is gratitude, which eclipses the reality that our flesh so despises this free gift because it doesn’t make sense. In not knowing how to thank Zossimov and expressing his confusion about the free gift, Raskolnikov articulates a deep and abiding gratitude that is beyond words that trumps the confusion. Gratitude is the furthest point from “taking for granted.” It is gratitude that  is produced by seeing that God so wills it that you have this inestimable gift. It is gratitude that produces the love and worship of this man Christ Jesus who is God who gave himself freely for you. And it is gratitude that drives us towards our neighbor in love to freely give to them as we have freely received.