On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV)
Just what was Jesus up to?
The Bishop invites him to dinner. All the “right” people will be there. Jesus is an up-and-coming rabbi; he has an opportunity to connect with people who can really help his ministry along.
He’s not inside the door ten minutes when the dinner guests begin watching him. He sees a man with dropsy. He’s in need of healing. The problem is, you can’t heal on the Sabbath. That involves work, and we’re supposed to rest on the Sabbath. (One might wonder how much work the servants are doing in preparing and serving the meal.)
So Jesus does what he often does: the right thing for the right reasons despite the prevailing attitudes of society. He turns to the lawyers and Pharisees and asks them about that law regarding healing on the Sabbath.
He cures the man with dropsy.
“Look,” he finally responds. “You wouldn’t allow your animals or children to die after falling into a well. Why is this man any different?”
Still more silence.
And while they’re watching Jesus, Jesus is noticing them. The Bishop was showing them where to sit and making sure that all of his important guests received proper treatment. Suddenly the mayor shows up and everyone has to move down one seat to accommodate him. The Pharisee from East Jerusalem sends word that he’s unable to attend, so another side of the table moves up a bit.
Perhaps Jesus was the after dinner speaker; perhaps he simply decided that it was time for a teaching moment. At any rate, sometime throughout the meal he tells them a parable. One might assume that he’s presenting a lesson on etiquette: something along the line of, “share your toys,” “talk nicely to others,” or “don’t overstay your welcome.”
Yet, when Jesus is present, the kingdom of God is present. We saw that when he cured the man with dropsy. So could he be talking about the Messianic Banquet at the end of time? If so, this takes on deeper meaning.
“When you’re dining in the kingdom, everyone has a good seat. So sit somewhere unobtrusive. Perhaps you’ll be asked to move higher, but you’ll certainly save face. When you exalt yourself in the kingdom, you become humbled. When you humble yourself in the kingdom, you are exalted.”
That doesn’t make sense for those of us who live and work in the “real” world. If I don’t tell others about my skills and talents, the chances are I’ll be bypassed for the big promotion. If I don’t advertise my strengths, my business will go under. Behaving humbly and taking the lowest seat is a good way to go unnoticed. And invisibility in our world is not desirable.
But Jesus isn’t finished. “When you’re entertaining, don’t habitually invite your friends and colleagues and family members and the well-heeled. Invite those who can’t pay you back: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” You’ll be blessed for an action that can’t be repaid in this life.”
It doesn’t make sense. It’s yet another one of Jesus’ counter-cultural sayings. Life in the kingdom just doesn’t work in the world. And though Christians often say that they are “in the world, not of the world,” we still get nervous when Jesus speaks up.
So, while we understand that the world doesn’t work quite like God’s kingdom, perhaps we can look to the church for examples. Several years ago, our congregation decided to host a Vacation Bible School. We put a lot of money into it, recruited several volunteers, advertised in the local paper, decorated and prepared. Everything was in place. The first evening of VBS a sign appeared on Broadway: “VBS at Grace Baptist.”
Two children showed up for our VBS. The following day I picked up my two grandsons and we managed to make it through the week with four kids. It was devastatingly disappointing. I sat in the sanctuary in prayer, “Why God? We did everything right. We put our hearts and souls into this. Why did we fail?”
Then I remembered the wise words of a long-time colleague, “God doesn’t call us to be successful. God calls us to be faithful.”
In the economy of the kingdom, we were faithful. In the economy of the kingdom, God didn’t feel the need to reward our faithfulness with hoards of children in attendance.
It’s common though. We’ve done all this work, why didn’t God provide? We work our hearts out for God, working to do better and then wonder why we feel so tired. Perhaps we’re not doing enough for God and the church. Perhaps we aren’t good enough or deserving enough.
So, if ministry isn’t about one raging success after another, what is it about? If God doesn’t give us rewards to match our efforts, what does it mean?
The answer lies in our definition of success.
Several years ago I attended a Congregational Development Seminar. A minister from a low-income neighborhood in Boston was one of our speakers. He shared with us their road to success: first they cleaned up the basement fellowship hall so they could invite neighbors to Bingo dinners. Then they began going out into the neighborhood, knocking on doors and getting to know the issues and problems.
They accomplished so much; it was faithful service with amazing results. Finally, I couldn’t take anymore. So I raised my hand and asked the question: “How long a period of time did this take?”
The minister became quite still. He looked at me for a moment and understanding began to dawn. “We’ve been working on this for more than nine years,” he finally said. “And those first years were rough. We were met by several disappointing results. But we believed we were on the right track so we kept right on working.”
The rest of the weekend he spoke about results that were a mix of thriving ministry with bitter disappointment. That’s what kingdom work is about. It’s not ministry with an end in mind: more money in the bank, more bottoms in the pews, bigger buildings. It’s about activity that moves our part of the world a bit closer to the growing kingdom of God.
Spoken like that, we realize that nudging our way up the ladder isn’t an end in itself; that doing something for someone else doesn’t have to mean we get paid back in this life.
If you think you’re not good enough to work in the kingdom, you’re wrong. If you think we’re too small to bring about a difference in our community, God has a message for you. It’s not quid pro quo: a value system that you receive something when you do something.
We take a step forward to honor our God. We take a leap of faith in order to make the lives of those around us resemble the kingdom. We put in our paltry effort, so that God can make something of it. Not for us, but for those we serve.
All glory and honor be to God.