Last Tuesday at study group we talked about the texts that were on the lectionary for this week. Two immediately struck a cord: the prophetic words from Jeremiah and the words from the letter to the Hebrews. It took significantly longer however for the group to warm to Jesus words in Luke in 14.
The feeling was that Hebrew 13 gave a very clear and very good indication of how we should live, and that we should all take those words to heart. The uncompromising clarity of Jeremiahs judgement on the defiling of the land and the transgressions against the law even by the leaders of his day appealed too. It resonated with many items that were in the news in the last few weeks. New immigrants working in conditions of slavery in the northern territory, logging in Tasmania, some of the policies put in place to "deal with" aboriginal communities and many, many more. It was felt the words of Jeremiah fitted in very well with our situation today.
And indeed we will probably all agree that, if only we all lived by the rules Hebrews 13 lays down and Jeremiah expounds, justice and peace would flow like a river and the world would be a much better place. Mutual love, hospitality, looking after the poor, the needy and the troubled, right relationships and keeping ourselves free from the love of money, keeping the law and looking after the environment would probably all be acceptable to any of us, Christian or not, as guiding principles for a moral life.
And from there it would be really easy to come up with a fire and brimstone sermon against those whom we feel might compromise those rules and carry on about government policy, consumerism, the dangers of the internet, the defilement of the environment and many other evils of the modern age. Probably leaving us with feelings of guilt and helpless rage, or the smug satisfaction of having at least, "said it".
Gospel, to me however, should be far more radical and life changing than that. Gospel, to me, should be turning my world upside down and breaking it apart. Should be liberating and transforming and life giving. And neither the list of "to dos" in Hebrews, nor the pointed finger of Jeremiah seem to quite get me there.
So what about the gospel?
Even that, at first glance, irritated me. Jesus banging on about the establishment and their hypocritical ways is of course always good to make me feel smug and confident that this, at least, is one area where I know I am on the right side of the fence: I am very humble, and always wait to be shown to my seat, especially at functions where there is a head table. I have also often entertained guests at my table whom I knew would not be able to invite me back or do me any favours in return. It has been drummed into me from before Sunday school that I should be sure never to push myself forward and never to do anybody a favour expecting something back. But that is no news, and no life-changing message either: even the gentiles would have seen those things as virtues! (not that that makes these virtues less valuable to a Christian of course).
Sure Jesus is using a hyperbole to make a point and possibly also just needling his Pharisee friends a bit, but where is the gospel in this? Where is the good news that will enable you and me to conduct our lives in Jesus footsteps from here on? What is the earth-shattering life-moving news hidden in these passages that will actually make a difference to your life and mine?
Or is this passage perhaps a call to be embarrassing at social functions, unsettle the established order and colour the cheeks of host and fellow guests pink? An invitation to be contrary and depart from the widely accepted philosophy that we get much further in life with gentle and polite words?
Jesus embarrasses his host (as well as the other guests), big time. First by making unhelpful comments about the pecking order according to which they have arranged themselves around the table (did they put him at the low end or the high end of the table I wonder, but then, as a Christian I should not be interested in such a thing at all of course) and then by lecturing them about the fact that they are friends, tending to the fabric of polite society while exchanging favours and conducting their business.
Come on Jesus, surely there are far more important things to get excited about. This is how things are done. This is how society is ordered, this is how the world works. We all know it is not ideal, but hey, what harm is there in it? We could be doing much worse.
"Blessed be anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God!"
A pious remark of one of the other guests diffuses the tension, puts an end to the moment of awkwardness and saves the day. Phew, nodding consent, everyone can now go back to their meal and agree: Of course we should be humble. Of course we should not put ourselves forward. Of course we should organise a soup kitchen.
In the kingdom we shall all be eating bread together.
But for the moment this is about as good as it gets.
Look, outside, there, some of our leftovers are given out to beggars who have gathered at the gate as soon as the rumour of a big to do happening went out. See, were doing our best, Jesus! We are practicing mutual love and sharing with the poor and the needy at the same time. What more do you want us to do?
But Jesus is not satisfied that easily. He becomes even more awkward and launches into the parable of the great banquet where all of those who think they got it all sorted in life miss out while others, gathered in from the roads and the lanes get to eat with the King.
There is a good chance, says Jesus, my dear fellow guest, that at that banquet at the end of time you just referred to with your pious remark, you may not be eating bread at all. That while you are busy doing what you are doing, convinced youre doing the right thing and getting it right, you may be missing out on something far more important altogether!
This is where the gospel, for me, connected back to Jeremiah. Because I am sure that those who were or are defiling the country, made or are making the heritage into an abomination, transgressed or are transgressing against the law and went or are going after things that did and do not benefit anybody in the end, did and do so with the best of intentions and the most compelling of reasons. Nobody ever sets out to damage and pollute the environment there are just other interests that are deemed more important: Jobs and the production of often very convenient and worthwhile products to assist us in life like paper and plastic and fossil fuels to heat our houses and drive our cars. Nobody would ever want to employ anybody in conditions resembling slavery. But if that is what it takes and those poor buggers are better off than where they came from anyway
.. Nobody ever sets out to bend the rules, but if it seems more convenient to do so we will all consider it
And thats where and how we, as humans, get into trouble. With the best of intentions, trying to make a dollar, adjusting our standards, sitting at meals, doing each other a few favours and longing to be important in the world. Convinced there is nothing wrong with what we do.
This is where we miss out on something more important altogether in the process. We miss out on the fountains of living water, the great banquet, the abundance and goodness of what God gives, and make do with cracked cisterns that hold no water. Creating a mess that will not only affect us, but also our children and our childrens children.
And it is there then, in Jeremiah, where Gods grace breaks in. Because inside and underneath this whole summing up of sad and disappointing human behaviour, I encounter God, not with a pointing finger or turning a disgusted back, but pleading, hankering for change, yearning for those who have made a mess of things to turn round and change direction. A God that does not give up and is still, in spite of everything, offering those fountains of living water to his people and seeking to connect and invite them back to the abundance of his grace. A God that is sad, and angry, and deeply disappointed, but still not ready to let go, even in the face of sustained and unrepented evil.
Jesus spoils a meal on the Sabbath. First by healing a man with dropsy he could have healed any other day, then by being fairly obnoxious and awkward about perfectly accepted social behaviour of his hosts and fellow guests and last but not least by telling the parable of the great banquet, suggesting that they, nice, polite and pious men, could miss out on the fulfilment of Gods promises at the end of time if they are not careful.
I believe the meal story only makes sense if we read it from the perspective of the banquet at the end of times. It is the image of the Sabbath of Gods Kingdom where all Gods people, healed and whole, will come to the mountain to eat and drink that puts the whole meal and what happens at it under critique.
By putting the actual, factual meal in the light of the image of the great banquet at the end of time, Jesus indicates that the Kingdom is not something to piously sigh about, or something that may come at some time in the far future. What Jesus says, and what much of the gospel of Luke is about, is that the Kingdom is here, now, where you and I are living out our lives and where Jesus is present.
This is where the gospel disturbs our established order, where we assume that some things are only changeable outside our time and competence. Telling us that it is here and now we are invited to come to the banquet and share with those who have been gathered from roads and laneways. Here and now the Kingdom needs to start happening, with us, you and me.
Kingdom is not where we comply with the rules and society as a nice, polite and ordered affair where we all know our place, notwithstanding the fact that it would greatly benefit everyone if we kept to the rules Hebrews 13 sets out and Jeremiah 2 affirms.
Kingdom happens where we connect to the dream of what is still to come and believe it can happen here and now. Kingdom requires for us to let go of what we believe holds our life together other than God. Calls us to let go of securities like money, success, career, status or whatever else keeps us in our place and be prepared to become awkward if what may be regarded as "normal practice" by the world does not exactly fit the parameters of Kingdom living.
Gospel then, happens when we discover that it is us, who may be missing out on that great banquet. Us who find ourselves out in the roads and laneways, lame, sick and desperate with the ailments our defective choices have caused. Too busy and pre-occupied to realise that we are missing out big time.
When we realise that God is out to find us, and bring us to the banquet, together with all the other poor buggers out there.
Gospel happens for me when I am invited by Jesus, after weve have had this awkward conversation about priorities and my need to be bigger and better than every one else, to join him at the table and be the Kingdom. Even if it is for half an hour or so, to enable me to go out and live out the Kingdom better after sharing bread and wine with others who have also been invited. Not because of our moral perfection and ability to live according to the rules set out in Hebrews 13 and other places, but because God has gone out of his way to find us and is longing to connect to us and be with us to replace our leaky cisterns with the abundance of fountains of living water. Amen.