When we read the stories about Jesus, or when we are in a discussion about him, we might wonder why God might reveal Godself in a particular point in time and place and through a particular person. After all, there have been many places and times in need of good news – that is certainly not a need limited to First century Palestine. Of course, that isn’t the only way, time or place that God is busy
God’s self disclosure: revealing Godself to us:
-- there is creation: growing each day, taking turns around the sun with no human agency to determine it;
-- there are words of wisdom from thoughtful men and women of every age pointing to truths and offering us glimpses of beauty;
-- and there are our good impulses, caring and thoughtfulness that urge us towards light and love every time we listen. God is indeed self-disclosing all of the time.[i]
But with this man, Jesus, there is something more. Perhaps because there is nothing like a face to face experience to offer us connection and deep understanding. “People can correspond for years but meeting face to face is the ultimate in communication,” as we know. Only 7% of communication is by the actual words used. The rest is tone, facial expression and body language. God has been communicating with us for years – millennia even – throwing out hints, drawing pictures, whispering in our minds and hearts the truths we need to know to understand life, beauty, love. And then, when the time was right – God came. Love came to earth to SHOW us, to TEACH us, to MODEL for us how to live in love with God and each other.
Inclusive Feast -- This Odd Parable from Luke
Luke’s version of the Wedding Feast parable is less violent than Matthew’s in chapter 22. For Luke, the rage of the host wasn’t the issue –rather the focus was on the excuses of the guests and those who ended up at the feast.
SETTING: Jesus was at the home of a prominent Pharisee for a meal. And the other guests, lawyers and Pharisees, were assembling at the table, for a meal…and they were jostling for the places of honor at the table. Jesus first tells them to take the last seat so that the host can move them up if that is desired – but to remember that someone more important than them may have been invited – those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.
12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
And then he tells this parable with the guests with many excuses.
What are the problems with these excuses? We may be thinking, “We just RSVP –“No” and let it go at that. But each excuse reveals what is more important to the person – property or acquisition (wealth), industry (work), or relationships. There are all good things – but not as important as accepting God’s invitation. We can see that from outside the story. We read this and tell ourselves, “If WE had received an invitation from God to a feast, we would have gone.”
Unfortunately, we rarely know that it is God behind the invitation. And we offer excuses all the time.
-- “I’m just too busy” or “I don’t have the time”
-- “I’m too tired.”
-- “That’s not really my interest,,,.skill set…. in my comfort zone…”
Our excuses actually interfere with our relationships, with God and with friends and family.
-- “Why were you late?” -- traffic
-- “Why did you say things that hurt me?” – I was frustrated
-- “Why didn’t you do what you said you would do to help? – I was busy with work.
See? We make whatever injury was done about our problems and choose to ignore the hurt that was done – or even acknowledge our guilt. We don’t want to be wrong – or to feel guilty. But this damages relationships.
-- “Why were you late?”
-- I’m so sorry that I messed up your plans. I was wrong and didn’t plan my time well. I’m sorry that you were hurt. I’m going to do better because I value our relationship. I hope that you can forgive me as I show you I’m going to do better.
-- “Why did you say things that hurt me?”
-- I’m so sorry that I hurt you. I shouldn’t have taken my frustration out on you. You matter to me and I want to fill your bucket, not empty it. I hope that you can forgive me. I really think that (you are doing a great job, you are very thoughtful, you bring joy to my life)
-- “Why didn’t you do what you said you would do to help?”
--I’m so sorry that I let you down. I’ll take care of that right now and you can think about what else I can do to help. I want to be a reliable partner for you, one you can trust. I won’t let you down again.
Excuses, excuses – they don’t satisfy anyone and they damage the relationships that matter to us. Taking responsibility for our actions is a better path.
Stories about Jesus tell us different things every time we hear them. Different stories reveal different parts of the story and different qualities of character.
As Children…gentle Jesus, meek and mild. For many of us, our earliest memories of church were sitting on small children’s chairs like the ones at the front and singing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” at the opening of the Sunday school time. And we heard how Jesus welcomed the children when the adults would have shifted them to the side. And how Jesus healed the sick daughter of Jairus. Jesus cared about the children. Some of us were reassured because our homes were not loving – and others of us understood that ALL children were loved by Jesus, especially the ones who were sick, or weak, or hungry.
As preteens or teens…perhaps we attended a Billy Graham crusade, read a book, or watched a movie with a Christian message and it got us thinking about Jesus a bit differently. The book, “The Cross and the Switchblade” was one of those pivot points. In the book, and also in the movie, Rev. David Wilkerson tells the story of his early ministry in New York City where he offered Jesus as an alternative to the drugs and gangs that were swallowing youth whole. After he shared Christ’s story and love, a couple of the toughest gang leaders in the city changed their lives – which made a lot of enemies. The Teen Challenge Center, a drop in center for youth, because a model of how to reach teens that had previously seemed unreachable.[ii] The other thing these stories did was help us understand that while the love of God in Jesus offered hope – that sharing that message with the world sometimes led to threat. But Jesus wasn’t just gentle and loving – Jesus was also a rescue worker, salvaging lost people.
As young adults… we may be drawn to Jesus as an agent of change. Perhaps we read Jim Wallis’ A Call to Conversion which challenges us to live out our faith in culture-challenging and even world-changing ways. That book and others by Jim Wallis or Brian McLaren do for more recent generations what Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship did for earlier ones. We’re ready to make a different – sign us up, Jesus, we’ll follow you!
As adults, we may hear Jesus’ stories are a personal challenge. Jesus talks about the poor and how we use our money and our excuses and how we use our time. We find ourselves frequently in those who are mired in the tradition and the law -- at least enough that we may either resent Jesus or resent the preacher telling the stories. Our better selves may not want to be challenged – wanting to settle in to a comforting Christianity.
Who is this man, Jesus? We may answer differently at different points in our lives.
The stories of Jesus shared in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke – the three that share the same basic vision of Jesus – reveal a deeply caring healer and teacher who talked a lot about the Kingdom of God. The stories were collected in the time that it looked like the eye-witnesses might pass on and it was important to collect them and write them down so that the stories could be shared with other generations. They had observed that these stories, shared second-hand, still created encounters with Jesus that changed lives. Encounters with Jesus, whether in Bible’s accounts, or in our own lives, often led to changes in the lives of those who encountered him.
Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God are remarkably consistent in offering challenges to our usual way of seeing things. Small seeds become big trees, Insiders are out and Outsiders are in, and the first will be last and the last will be first. Reversals are part of the DNA of Jesus’ kingdom. And that might scare us.
We think of ourselves as the good people, the wise, the caring, the ones who know better. And perhaps we are. But Jesus suggests in this parable that we good, wise, caring people are the ones who make excuses to God instead of saying yes and showing up. And if we keep doing that, there may be a day when we will be excluded from the feast. Our reserved seats will be given to the poor, the differently abled, the homeless, the undocumented and the incarcerated. Because they will hear the good news and receive it with joy.
At Princeton University’s 250th celebration, Daniel T Niles, a Methodist evangelist from Sri Lanka, told a “story of a man in India who had been to hear the famed evangelist Billy Graham preaching at a crusade in New Delhi. Thrilled by Graham’s presentation and caught up in the movement of the Holy Spirit, he decided to give his heart to Jesus. After such a thrilling experience, he rushed home to tell his family and close friends the news of his conversion.
As the man sped along down this street and that, he turned a corner and fell over a blind beggar who was sitting there selling something. I think it was pencils. Hurriedly, he stopped to gather up the poor man’s wares and restore them to him.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” he said. “I wish I could stop to help you. But you see, I’ve just found Christ at the Billy Graham meeting, and I am on my way home to tell the good news to my family and friends.”
At this point, Niles got a very sad look on his round little face and paused for a moment. Then he commented wryly, ‘He had just missed Christ where he might have found him, in the beggar.’”[iii]
We know this story because John Killinger recorded it as Story 7 in his book, Stories that have shaped my life and ministry. He writes that, after this story, suddenly he was “confronted with a moral imperative. If I didn’t see Christ in other people – in the poor, the hurt, and the lonely – then I couldn’t really follow him at all.”[iv]
Jesus’ stories do that, even second hand. They get under our skin and echo in our heads and soften our hearts. They change our lives.
These three gospels tell us the stories of Jesus – but not just the ones we love to hear. Jesus is more than just the gentle Savior of our earliest childhood pictures. If we let our understandings grow, Jesus can also be the truth-telling friend who challenges us when we are making excuses instead of being honest. And Jesus can be the pointed instructor explaining what we have missed along the way. These stories should come with a warning label: WARNING: These stories could change your life – THIS MAN, JESUS, could make you rethink everything you thought you understood. This man, Jesus, who welcomes everyone to the table, is found where we least expect him. We must be careful: we don’t want to miss him where we MIGHT find him.
[i] Questions and response carefully raised in a sermon by James A. Pike, “Christ as Meaning,” complied in a book edited by Franklin H. Littell, Sermons to Intellectuals from Three Continents. P. 115-1.
[iii] John Killinger, “Stories that Have Shaped my Life and Ministry.” St Louis: Chalice Press, 2012. P.45.
[iv] Killinger, 45.