Sunday, September 08, 2013

No Higher Praise

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1-14

There is a dynamic and necessary tension at work between the physically present "Body of Christ" and the Law in Luke's gospel.  More accurately there is a tension between the "Law fulfilled" which is Christ Himself (Matthew 5:17) and the Law observed by human nature which is generally more shallow and much more narrow than what was obviously intended from the beginning, the intention which had been revealed by the prophets and which is now fully revealed in Messiah. 

We must not become confused with an overly simplistic doctrinal misunderstanding along the lines of "law bad, Jesus good" because the two are not mutually exclusive.  They are, as the Word of God, one and the same; present AND perfected.  It is rather our interpretations, understandings, and practical applications that need more than a little tweaking if we seek to live as faithful and true disciples. 

This tension is evident in verse 1 in which it is stated, "They were watching [Jesus] closely."  That they were "watching Jesus closely" is no indication they were "watching" with a hope and a willingness to learn something.  Rather their minds were already made up, they had their own preconceived agendas, they were already filled with their own opinions of what righteousness is about, and they were "watching" in probable hope that Jesus would somehow stumble and hang Himself in accordance with their narrow understanding of the Law. 

It is no gospel secret that Jesus was "watched" often by the religious leaders.  "Watching" to learn something as opposed to "watching" to expose something is the difference between self-righteousness (defined by what we think we can get away with) and genuine humility (defined by a willingness to know something new, a willingness to admit our limited perspectives).

These self-righteous religious leaders were exposed for their narrow understanding and spiritual blindness, however, when they refused to answer Jesus' direct question.  They certainly could not respond to Jesus' comparison to a human understanding of what WE would consider a "righteous" violation of the Law to protect our families and our property - and - what not often enough should be our moral concern: mercy toward the plight and suffering of others. 

The idea that any one of these religious leaders would drop everything to pull his own donkey from a pit on the Sabbath but refuse to assist a suffering neighbor by calling that act of mercy "work" - and feel perfectly justified in doing so! - is not only hypocrisy at its worst but is an affront to everything the people of the Most High God should properly understand about our Lord and our relationship to one another (like the Law and Jesus, these cannot be separated one from another), all defined by the same Law which ultimately defines The Church; that is, the people of the Covenant.  It is this very narrow human vision that will be exposed in Jesus' following parable especially toward those who considered themselves worthy of the "places of honor" - somehow above the Law and with no regard for others.

 Notice within this context Jesus' lesson in presuming to choose for oneself the "place of honor" as if there could be no other "more honorable" or "more worthy".  The text indicates this "leader of the Pharisees" was not the only religious authority present at the meal.  So just as they had been previously "watching Jesus closely", Jesus was also watching them as closely and probably observing a strangely humorous ritual in which all these men of "honor" were surely clambering for what they believed to be ... "theirs", what they were somehow "entitled" to. 

It might be said that within this particular setting, they may well have already known their places in the Temple hierarchy as surely as they also imagined a greater place for themselves one day when ol' so-and-so would finally kick the bucket.  For the self-righteous, it's all about "me" and "my place" - the concept of which is, in and of itself, a violation of the Law revealed - and - the Law fulfilled in Messiah as He declares Himself: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father in Heaven" (Mt 7:21).

How can it be that for those who believe themselves to be so intimately familiar with the Holy Scriptures can be so far removed from the wisdom of the Scriptures?  Could it be that the written words lack the nuance of the spoken word, especially when these words are never embraced or practiced?  Think about reading the "rules" of algebra. If these "rules" are not studied and then practiced, the words will be completely lost.  They'll have no meaning.  So it is with the "rules" of the Law; if there is no practice, no real engagement in the will of the Lord toward one another, the words will soon be lost on us all.

A lot, as it is often said, can be lost in the translation as well.  More than this, however, can be lost by hardened and self-centered hearts.  "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.  But My people did not listen to My voice; [My people] would not submit to Me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels" (Psalm 81:10-12).  Why worry about "righteousness" when one is already among the "chosen"?  By the same token, why worry about "obedience" or mercy toward others when one thinks oneself already "saved"?  That excuse did not work for the people of Israel; it will not work for the people of the Church.  Yet because of very narrow, self-interested interpretations of St. Paul, we think we have found a loophole by way of "grace"; that is, grace we demand but are unwilling to grant. 

It is not a matter of disbelieving the Lord who promised never to "forsake" His people; rather it is a judgment by the Lord that we are not open to His Presence, we are not open to His Word, we are not open to His influence, we are not open to His Wisdom, we are not open to "the least among us", we are not open to those whom we "can't stand" - we only want what we want for ourselves, our families, and our friends.  So after a period of time in which we prove beyond doubt that we are unwilling to be taught, that we are unwilling to admit there is more to learn, that we are unwilling to put aside our own agendas, the Lord will decree to simply give us what we have long been seeking (absolute freedom even from Him); and our conscience will no longer be a barrier to our pursuit of "personal" happiness at the expense of others. 

So we would violate the letter of the Sabbath Law to preserve and protect our own interests, but we would willingly turn a blind eye to the Lord's interests by a narrow and individualistic interpretation of the Scriptures.  We would worry more about a socially acceptable guest list to our lavish dinner banquet by fulfilling cultural responsibilities, inviting those whom we "owe" (because they had previously invited us to their parties), inviting those whom we "like", and inviting those whose favor we may be seeking, working diligently to become or remain "popular" - but - we would deny righteousness by allowing the "poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" to go hungry because for us there is no tangible reward for doing otherwise.

This is the reality to which Jesus was speaking in Luke's gospel.  And if Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever", as it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews, it is the reality to which Jesus is speaking even today.  Yet in the midst of that admonishment is the clarion call to look beyond "what is" - and see, really see, "what could be".  Even as Jesus is admonishing this religious leader (AND US!) for such a narrow vision of the Law, our Lord is also leading this man (AND US) to an opening by which our failures can be corrected: to open our doors and, thus, open our hearts to those who cannot and will never repay our acts of kindness and mercy in this life.  And Jesus states it very clearly: "You will be blessed ... and repaid at the Resurrection". 

This is the Gospel never more alive than when we receive to ourselves the very "strangers" we all once were.  This is the Law.  This is our Lord - in us and through us - for others.  Amen.  

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